Monday, December 08, 2008

Report Sums Up Shape of the San Juan River

State Department of Game and Fish Biologist, James Dominguez, 36, of Tucumcari, displays one of many fine trout found in the waters of New Mexico's San Juan River during an electro-shocking expedition in the late fall of 2008. To the right, San Juan River Fisheries Biologist, Marc Wethington,44, of Kirtland, takes note.

Wading around the corner of a willow choked island at Baetis Bend on the San Juan River recently, I encountered a well-appointed but clearly disappointed fly fisherman.

“This river has gone to hell, “ he complained.

I wondered what the problem was as I looked over the water he was deserting. After all, it was a gorgeous, late fall day, trout were rising and he’d had this whole stretch of New Mexico’s premier trout stream all to himself.

What he was complaining about was low water flows in recent years that he believed had killed off insects that the river’s trout feed upon.

He lamented the loss of the good old days, back when water released from Navajo Dam ran much higher, scouring silt and sediment from the river bottom, producing conditions in which insects thrived, making fishing here a breeze.

He concluded that the river and the fishing had suffered and mumbled bitterly as he shuffled off around the bend.

But within minutes I was into a classic San Juan rainbow, 18 inches of fight, straining mightily against my line, then sailing through the air and making my day.

Because, although some of what the disgruntled angler said may be true, the river’s trout population today continues to thrive and most anglers are highly satisfied with the fishing.

That’s according to a recently released study of the river by the state Department of Game and Fish.

“Despite the circumstances, this is still a very healthy and productive fishery,” says Marc Wethington, the department’s fisheries biologist on the San Juan and key contributor to the report.

This year’s annual electro-shocking survey revealed great numbers of vigorous trout in New Mexico’s top trophy water.

“The number and quality of the fish look real good,” Wethington said as he inspected fish snared during a late November, 2008 outing.

Floating downstream with Wethington at the oars, crew members James Dominguez and Sean Buczek lean over a rail mounted on the front of a 14-foot raft, armed with nets mounted on long poles.

At the back of the boat a gas-powered, electric generator chugs away, providing current to a probe immersed in the water at the front of the raft.

Strands of wire dangle from the back of the boat to complete the circuit and provide a “stun-zone” under and around the boat.

As we float downstream, dozens of fish can be seen darting about, running from the shock while others, caught in the current, float unharmed to the surface.

Snared by the crew, the fish are poured into a holding tank to await inspection.

After a short run, the tank is brimming with trout and Wethington beaches the raft and the work of weighing, measuring and inspecting the trout begins.

The crew notes if the fish show evidence of having been caught before and in one case delicately untangle a line and several flies embedded in a trout’s snout.

The trip resulted the largest trout caught being a 24-inch Rainbow while an average size of 17-inches was the norm in places like the Cable Hole and Upper Flats as well the stretch downstream between Jacks Hole and ET Rock, Wethington said.

The river’s Brown trout is also increasing with Browns accounting for 65-percent of all fish caught during the electro-shocking trip from Texas Hole downstream, Wethington said.

This stretch also produced the most fish during this year’s expedition, accounting for almost 700 fish-per-hour, Wethington said.

Electro-shocking catch rates on the river have been steadily increasing in recent years with the Texas hole stretch giving up the most fish last year, according to date compiled in the department’s report.

And while the data shows the river’s trout population to be very healthy, what it fails to capture is the stunning number, sheer size and beauty of San Juan trout seen during one of these electro-shocking expeditions.

The survey takes in fish along the San Juan River’s upper four miles of quality water where anglers are limited in the first quarter mile to catch and release only, using single barbless lures.

The remaining quality water mileage is ruled by the same tackle restrictions, but has a bag limit of one-trout-per-day, over 20 inches, with the angler forced to cease fishing upon taking a fish.

The survey also takes into account three miles of downstream “bait water” where the bag limit is five-fish-per-day and no tackle restrictions.

The report, in using information collected during these and other surveys such as angler interviews, reveals a number of trends.

For instance, the popularity of the San Juan River has steadily climbed over the years to the point that angling pressure is three times heavier now than during the mid-80s when the river is said to have been at its best.

Yet the vast majority of anglers interviewed, 92 percent, indicate they were highly satisfied with their fishing experience on the San Juan with an average catch of one-fish-per-hour and a little more than 5 percent reporting having caught fish exceeding 20 inches in length.

The San Juan is regularly stocked which accounts for the estimated 70,000 fish found in its waters. An estimated 60,000 fingerling Rainbow trout are planted annually, many of whom eventually grow up to become one of the San Juan’s good looking, hard fighting, world-renowned trout.

On average, anglers reel in a trout measuring 16 to 18 inches on this river, Wethington says.

But the San Juan River also supports a healthy population of naturally reproducing brown trout that can be regularly found inhabiting the same waters as their brethren.

The author displays a nice San Juan Brown Trout caught in the lower stretches of the San Juan River's quality waters in the late fall of 2008. Special thanks to David McGee of Roswell for taking the photo.

Stocking of the lower stretches of the river, where anglers can take their limit, accounts for another 46,000 pan-sized trout each year.

Surveys show fish over the size of 20 inches or more are consistently caught in the lower stretches of the river.

Angler survey data also shows the river is busiest during late summer and early fall and slowest during the winter while the heaviest pressure is on the upper reaches, at and above Texas Hole, and the least down in the Pump House Run.

The vast majority of anglers found on the San Juan are from out-of-state, about 62 percent, while New Mexican’s accounted for 28 percent with the remaining 10 percent living in San Juan County.

The report notes that survey results show the river’s angling performance meets or exceeds the department’s management goals and contributes about $25 million to the state’s economy annually.

The report also addresses some issues raised by those concerned about the river’s health due to low water flows and silt and sedimentation that some claim is caused by oil and gas development in the area.

The report notes that a United States Geological Service (USGS) study of the oil and gas industries’ impact in the area shows that the vast majority of silt and sediment accumulating in the river, 87 percent, is generated by naturally occurring runoff, not the energy industry, as the industry’s critics claim.

The report notes another study by the New Mexico Department of the Environment that also determined that much of the silt and sedimentation in the river below the dam was naturally occurring and hadn’t negatively affected the river’s insect populations’ ability to thrive.

The San Juan River's abundant midge hatches confound many fly fishermen due to their miniscule size and difficulty to match but trout find clusters of them provide a delicious meal.

Nonetheless, the department’s report notes that continued oil and gas development combined with lower flows could potentially harm the fishery and indicates the department’s willingness to work with all stakeholders to minimize those effects.

The report responds to the controversial issue of the lower water releases by summarizing the dam’s operational history and highlighting the department’s efforts to address the low water’s effects.

Water releases are controlled by the federal Bureau of Reclamation with operational guidelines set at a minimum flow of 250 cfs with a high of 5,000 cfs in the late spring to mimic the natural flood cycle of the river.

The BOR tries to maintain a consistent flow of about 500 cfs throughout the year, but that flow can fluctuate dependant on storage capacity and other conditions. For instance, the BOR did not make high springtime releases in the years 2002, 2003 and 2004, due to low storage.

The Game and Fish Department’s report acknowledges that flows fell below 500 cfs in the years between 2000 and 2007 about 50 percent of the time and below 250 cfs about 5 percent of the time.

It notes that in the years between 1963 and 1999, flows fell below 500 cfs only about 20percent of the time and below 250 cfs an estimated 2 percent of the time.

To see more detailed monthly flow data for the dam see the United States Geological Services webiste at .

Advocates of the river claim the recent low flows have had a negative impact on the river and they are calling for an increase in water deliveries to help the fishery recover.

“Sure, we’d all love to see 700 or 800 cfs minimum flows, but the reality is I don’t see that happening,” Wethington says of the controversy. “The reality is we expect to see even lower flows as water development continues.”

Most water stored in the dam is owned by the Navajo Nation and is expected to be siphoned off in future years to satisfy growing demand for agricultural, municipal and other developments, he says.

Wethington notes anglers are enjoying a fishery built on borrowed water and that advocates face an uphill battle in altering the game rules governing the dam and its water.

Thus, the department has geared its efforts towards minimizing the impact of expected lower flows by installing in-stream, habitat improvements designed to help transport silt and sediment further downstream while also providing trout better accommodations to weather the storm.

If nothing else, the San Juan is the only fishery in the state protected by a minimum flow requirement and that bodes well for it’s future, Wethington said.

See related articles about in-stream improvements on the San Juan here .

See the department’s report on the Game and Fish’s at .

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Colorado's Calling - Is it Worth the Trip?

A Taylor River cutthroat.

As the debate over the health of New Mexico’s premier trout stream, the San Juan river, heightened recently, a colleague urged me to see how other tail water fisheries, like those found in our neighboring state of Colorado, stacked up against our own.

He mentioned in particular the monster trout living in the Taylor River below the dam as some of the biggest and most colorful he'd ever seen, feeding upon a steady diet of lake shrimp and small midges, year round.

So I headed north into the towering Rockies just to see just what kind of fishing these legendary tail waters like the Taylor River, the Frying Pan and the South Platte below Eleven Mile Reservoir might produce.

An early July trip to the Taylor River revealed just under a half mile of public water below the dam and then a long stretch of gorgeous, private water before turning public again for several more miles.

This is a beautiful river with plenty of boulders, towering cliffs and big pines surrounding it. There were lots of pull off areas along the road providing easy access to the river and plenty of camping and lots of company.

We had arrived during the tail end of the runoff season as the water was just coming down. Rafters were still running it and the campgrounds were pretty packed and fairly expensive.

A helpful campground host suggested we head up to the lake where we could camp at large if we were on a budget.

Climbing out of the canyon we discovered an awesome lake and expansive countryside, truly impressive scenery.

Near the far end of the lake we found a Forest Service campground called River’s End situated on a butte overlooking the river as it enters the reservoir.

Taylor Reservoir. The dam and canyon through which the river runs is in the upper right hand corner of the lake.

We elected to camp here for the night for a reasonable fee and my fishing partner on this trip, Glenn F. May, had good luck down on the river, picking up some nice trout in the waning light of the day.

Meanwhile I was busy chatting up the neighbors, the Davis brothers and their friend Carroll “The Mayor” Rainwater, who warned me that we would see the temperature drop into the teens that night and to bundle up.

From left to right: Charles "Bud" Davis, 69, of Jackson, Mo., Eddie Davis, 62, of Patterson, Mo., Carroll Rainwater, 67, of Greenville, Mo., and Raymond Davis, 65, of Imperial, Mo.

They weren’t lying.

Summer’s a short and often illusionary season up in the high country of Colorado and I ended up cloaking myself in every piece of clothing I'd brought on this trip.

Never leave the knit cap at home, even if it is July.

The following day Mr. May headed downstream to fish some of the water we passed on the way in while I explored the upper river above the lake, some side streams and a bit of the surrounding backcountry.

Taylor Reservoir with the River's End campground on the far end of the lake.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the number of ATV’s running about up here and the giant, fifth wheel trailers parked right at streamside or in communal gatherings upon some grassy knoll.

Kind of reminded me of Labor Day at Elephant Butte, people and machinery everywhere, tearing up the territory and having a hoot of a good time.

I realized there was so much country to explore here that our short two-night trip couldn’t do it justice and decided to hit the tail water below the dam to see what all that hype was about.

Below the spillway I found some very well outfitted anglers, spaced out at regular intervals along the stream bank.

None of them seemed very busy at the time.

Glenn F.May surveys the Taylor River's short but sweet tailwater section below the dam in Colorado this past July.

So this was it, under a half mile of water comprised of a fairly narrow, straight stretch that crossed under the roadway, bounced off a big rock wall, formed a big deep pool and then tumbled over a long, rocky run before hitting private property.

I parked in one of the paved pull-offs by the roadside and walked up onto the bridge where upon looking over the guardrail I could see the faintly, undulating forms of some very big trout in the current down below.

I walked back down to the streamside below the bridge and pushed through the dense, streamside willows to watch a lone angler standing atop a rock by the head of the big pool.

Looking back in the tail of the deep, clear pool I noticed shadows against the streambed, dozens of them. Upon donning my polarized sunglasses, the shadows suddenly became trout, big ones, all stacked up like they were waiting for a bus.

The shadows are trout and plenty of them.

Check this out, I said to myself.

Back in Gunnison I had stopped at one of the better sporting goods stores I've been in recently, Gene Taylor’s, where we found a store crammed full of outdoor gear, you name it and they had it.

And their fishing conditions board stated that the usual fare for the Taylor included tiny Mysis shrimp and Baetis emergers.

So I tied up an RS2 like we use on the San Juan with a little shrimp imitation I had picked up somewhere and got to fishing for those suckers at the back of the pool.

Funny thing is the first fish I caught on the San Juan was with one of these little shrimps.

One of the clerks at Abe’s fly shop had recommended it, said they’d switched to a different outlet at the dam that brought water and shrimp out from the bottom of the lake.

I was fishing with May then too and I hooked and lost that first fish in the run just above the cable pool.

I was amazed at the power and agility of that fish and remember looking about into the gray stillness of that snowy day and realized there was no one around I could crow about it to.

So it was with confidence I tied on that shrimp on the Taylor’s tail water but after an hour of work and numerous different fly combinations I gave up in frustration on the small stuff.

I instead slipped on a #12 green bodied, red headed, Stimulator and slapped that puppy on the water with a vengeance.

And damn, if one of those big browns didn’t break off from the pack on the bottom and head up to the surface for a look see.

I tensed as I watched the trout head straight for my fly and then it opened wide and sipped it down.

I set the hook and hung on for the ride.

The guy on the rock wasn’t too pleased when I waded over to him a short time later with the fish in tow and asked him to take my picture.

He hadn’t been having much luck either and only grudgingly agree to take it.

The automatic lens opening on my little camera jammed while I had the fish in hand but at least we got half the photo, even if it is little fuzzy.

It was amazing how deeply colored this brown trout was from eating all those shrimp, it’s tail a bright, eye catching red.

I kept fishing and ended up crossing over to the far bank where no one was venturing and climbed up and over a treacherously steep, rocky slope to get at the tail end the deep pool.

But I had no luck until I worked my way up to just above the bridge where I floated my stimulator downstream into the shaded water underneath it.

I never saw the fish take the fly. The line simply grew tight, trembled slightly and then began weave back and forth, straining mightly against the current.

I knew if I didn’t change my position, it would only be a matter of time before the fish broke me off.

That’s when the lady fishing below me on the downstream side of the bridge waved at me to come on down.

I splashed my way under the bridge and managed to reel up the trout, a beautiful, fat cutthroat which the lady was kind enough to photograph for me.

I fished some more in the rocky run below the big pool and managed to hook and fight another fat brown before I lost it in the fast water.

I decided to call it an afternoon and went looking for Mr. May.

I had a good time fishing the Taylor’s tailwater but it was a little like playing dodge ball in a walk-in closet, too many people and not enough room.

Heading downstream I admired the long stretch of private water marked by regularly, spaced rock and log cairns linked by a single strand of steel cable from which “No Trespassing” signs dangled.

It was kind of depressing to see all that gorgeous water and not a soul fishing it.

I thought of donning my camoflage, hooded sweatshirt and sneaking down the embankment to fish a pool in the shadow of the highway, unseen by passing motorists.

But I’d have to have someone drop me off first, I thought.

Then I figured I might be able to fish for maybe 30 minutes before the “authorities” could respond if someone had seen me.

By then my ride could return to wisk me away undetected, right?

Not a bad idea, I thought.

Then a big burly, sheriff’s deputy in a huge, SUV rolled by and I thought better of it.

May reported the fishing in the lower stretches of the river to be slow as the water was still running a little high and the wading a bit treacherous.

But the water down here looked great and certainly warranted further inspection, just not on this trip.

I envy those would live in this area, people who could drive up here after work during the week to leisurely fish the river, all of it, as time and conditions permitted.

That night we arrived back at the campground to find our neighbors had set aside some of their fish fry for us.

Wrapped in tinfoil we found delicately baked trout swimming in onions and red and yellow peppers.

Another tinfoil package contained crispy, fish strips coated in “Andy’s “ breading, a really tasty coating with just the right combination of spices.

These guys were accomplished fishermen, excellent cooks and epitomized hospitality.

Eddie Davis puts out a call on one of the Davis brother's homemade turkey calls, fashioned from a leg bone.

The following morning after May had peeled out to try his luck on the stretch below the dam, I remained behind to sample some of the Davis's brothers breakfast fixins.

They served up perfectly fried bacon, nice and crispy, and "candied" scambled eggs, featuring chunks of red pepper and onions. They even had steaming hot, baked biscuits and some of the finest white, gravy I've ever had, just like my Dad’s.

Now I've been a cook most of my life, even made a living at it for many years, and when I say I'm impressed with someone's cooking, that's saying something.

So if you're lucky enough to ever encounter these guys up on the lake, they’ve been going there for years, don't pass up their offer of a plate.

I was curious about their generosity and asked about their upbringing.

I was told they had grown up poor, so poor in fact that their folks weren't even aware the Great Depression was over until sometime in the late fifties.

Then they’d crack a grin and tell another story about life growing up in the rural country of Missouri where they hunted, fished and lived a humble life.

Eddie Davis' turkey calls feature artwork by his son Will and are reminiscent of the kind of scrimshaw work done by whaling sailors of old. His calls can be had by contacting him at

Turns out the Davis Brothers all teach Sunday school and they practice what they preach. No smoking, no drinking and no swearing. And that's not something they went on about, it's something I had to learn later from one of their wive's.

This a great group of guys and well worth hanging out with, in fact, they made the trip down to this river much more memorable than the fishing down below the dam.

Rock on gentlemen!

Stay tuned for our next installment on fishing some of Colorado's tailwaters including the Frying Pan River and the South Fork of the Platte below Eleven Mile Reservoir.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jude Duran Pleads Guilty to Bank Robbery

Former San Juan River fishing guide, Jude Duran, 29, of Flora Vista, has pleaded guilty to robbing a Montrose, Colorado bank in May 2008 of about $7,000 and now faces a maximum 20 year prison term when sentenced in January.

Duran pled guilty before Chief U.S. District Court Judge Edward W. Nottingham in Denver on Oct. 8, 2008, according to US Attorney’s Office spokesman, Jeff Dorschner.

Duran is being held at the federal prison in Littleton, Co. and is scheduled for sentencing before Nottingham on Jan. 9, 2009.

Duran is expected to seek leniency due to his mental health issues and his wife’s declining medical condition, according to the plea agreement in the case.

Duran’s wife, Donna, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and Duran has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, according to court records in the case.

The plea agreement indicates that under sentencing guidelines used in federal cases Duran could conceivably be looking at anywhere between a 4 to 13 year prison term, however, the judge retains the ultimate discretion in sentencing and it remains to be seen how he rules.

The plea agreement spells out facts in the case including the following:

“On May 13,2008, the defendant (Duran) drove to Montrose, Colorado from his home in Flora Vista, New Mexico, arriving at approximately 9 a.m..

The defendant had recently acquired a handgun from a private party, for the purpose of committing a bank robbery.

Upon arriving in Montrose, he stole a Colorado license plate from a vehicle in a parking lot and, placed it on his vehicle after removing his New Mexico plate.

He then drove to the north side of Montrose on Highway 50, and placed a 911 call from a phone booth, and requested help in a disguised voice.

He then drove south to the Vectra Bank on Highway 550, where he donned rubber surgical gloves and disguised himself with a balaclava and sun glasses.

On entering the bank he pointed the handgun at the employees in the lobby and approached one of the teller windows.

He then placed a white bag on the counter and instructed the teller to put the money in it from both the top and bottom drawers and 'no dye pack".

Although the defendant contests this, a personal banker seated at a desk near the teller area, reported that the defendant pointed the handgun at her and directed her to move away from the desk, stating that, "it's not worth it".

The defendant then took the bag of money and left the bank, where he was observed by customers of a nearby business, who provided police with a description of the vehicle.

After replacing his New Mexico license plate, the defendant drove south out of Montrose, where he was stopped by Sheriff"s deputies.

While waiting for them to approach his vehicle, the defendant dropped the money and the handgun on the roadside.

He was released after his license and plates were cleared through the dispatch center.

After returning to retrieve the money and gun, he was stopped again, and this time arrested.

The defendant gave a full confession to both the Montrose Police detectives and the F.B.I.

The deposits of the Vectra Bank are insured by the F .D.I.C. The amount taken by the defendant and recovered was $7131.90. “

See the entire plea agreement and other courts records in the case here .

See related stories about the case including Duran's reasoning behind the crime, here .

Before his arrest, Duran, an Albuquerque native, was a popular and well known, independent San Juan River guide who’d gained notoriety for his support of the use of multiple fly rigs on the blue ribbon, trout stream below Navajo Dam.

Such rigs have since been banned on the San Juan River at the request of a coalition of guides and fly shops who claimed the rigs caused needless death and injury to trout in the legendary trout fishery.

See related story about the two fly rule and Jude Duran's involvement here .

Those interested in financially assisting Duran's wife can find more information here .

Friday, September 26, 2008

Fall is a Great Time for Camping Here in New Mexico

The crowds and heat of summer have waned and the tantalizing colors of autumn now beckon.

And with the monsoon season behind us, New Mexico's autumn days are warm and inviting and the nights, crisp and clear.

One of the best places to enjoy these spectacular conditions is a gem of a campground known as Mills Canyon.

Found far out on the eastern plains between Roy and Abbott on State Road 39 this recently refurbished U.S. Forest Service campground lies at the bottom of a canyon through which the Canadian River flows.

Visitors cross the sparse, rolling prairie through sections of the federally managed Kiowa Grasslands to reach the camping area.

One may pass a group of grazing antelope or proceed under the watchful eye of a circling hawk while heading down there.

Upon reaching the canyon’s edge a visitor is struck by a surprising view through the ponderosa pines and scrub oak of a shimmering, ribbon of river below.

Ablaze with red willows and towering, gold cottonwoods in the fall and rimmed by red sandstone cliff walls, Mills Canyon is a feast for autumn revelers.

Once home to a large scale farming operation that provided supplies to the railroads, modern day explorers will still find the ruins of once majestic stone buildings and stands of hardy fruit trees.

Visitors will find new campsites and outhouses but no water or other services at the bottom.

Back atop the rim of the canyon, visitors will also find new campsites and horse corrals and best of all, these sites are free for use by the public.

Administered by the Forest Service’s Kiowa and Rita Blanca Grasslands office in Clayton, more information about Mills Canyon can be had by calling 575-374-9652 or visiting the Cibola National Forest - Welcome! web site.

More spectacular fall camping in northeastern New Mexico can be found straddling the Colorado state line at Sugarite State Park.

Considered by many to be the best of New Mexico’s state park system, Sugarite boasts spectacular views of the canyon and plains below from its mesa top, Soda Pocket, campground.

The park features numerous hiking trails including two, half-mile climbs to the mesa tops surrounding Soda Pocket campground that offer even better views.

The park’s headquarters are located on what was once a bustling coal camp where visitors can explore the camp’s preserved ruins or enjoy some fishing on nearby lakes Alice and Maloya.

Wildlife viewing opportunities abound at Sugarite with bear and other forest creatures in abundance.

So much so that Woodall’s Camping Life in April 2006 ranked Sugarite among the top-ten, state parks in the entire country, citing it’s wildlife viewing opportunities as one of its top draws.

Normally a busy place, fall provides visitors an opportunity to freely enjoy Sugarite’s many charms without the pressure of summertime crowds.

Located on State Road 526 outside of historic Raton, Sugarite State Park is a fine choice for a fall road trip.

For more information call the park at (575) 445-5607 or visit the state parks section of the state Energy Mineral and Natural Resources website at

Those venturing up the Rio Grande Valley during the autumn months to north central New Mexico might find themselves hard pressed to keep their eyes on the road, the scenery is that spectacular.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Rivers Recreation Area just north of Questa boasts arguably the finest, scenic overlook in the state at the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River.

Peering 800 feet down into the Rio Grande Gorge, one can imagine the immense geologic forces that worked to create New Mexico’s own Grand Canyon.

One can take a strenuous hike into the gorge from several different trails to experience the gorge’s awesome beauty or fish the Big River’s fabled waters.

Numerous campsites line the gorge’s edge with El Aguaje being one of the best featuring an easy trail down into the Red River gorge, recently refurbished campsites and great access to the rest of the recreation area.

Located off State Road 378 just past the village of Cerro visitors will find a manned visitors’ center open within the recreation area for more information.

The Wild Rivers Recreation Area can be a hot, dusty, sun-baked place in the dead of the summer. But in the fall, one can explore its many possibilities in relative comfort and safety.

For more information about the Wild Rivers Recreation Area check out the BLM’s website at

Further out west in Indian Country lies a historic watering hole, El Morro, where fall travelers can enjoy a remarkable experience.

Operated by the National Park Service this monument features excavated Indian ruins including a mesa top kiva, petroglyphs, some of the finest, historic graffiti in the country and one neat little campgound.

Located west of Grants on State Road 53 on the outskirts of the Ramah Navajo Reservation the reliable watering hole lured many travelers who left their mark
in the soft sandstone, including that of Spanish Conquistador, Don Juan Oñate.

Noted for its towering sandstone bluff, visitors will find a modern visitor center at El Morro, interpretive hiking tours and campsites featuring water spigots, tent pads, picnic tables and fire rings.

Traveling to El Morro visitors will pass through the El Malpais National Monument, a massive area featuring great lava flows, ice caves and volcano craters.

Normally a lonely, hot and inhospitable area in the summer, a trip to El Morro can be a delight in the fall.

For more information see the National Park Service’s website at and follow the links for El Morro and El Malpais.

And lastly when venturing out in New Mexico during the fall one can’t help but be drawn to the southwestern part of the state where cooler temperatures make a visit to the Gila wilderness and national forest a must.

Covering over three million acres, this vast area of the state features dozens of campgrounds, several lakes, numerous streams, high mountain peaks, protected wilderness areas and an amazing array of sightseeing opportunities.

If heading down into the Gila from the west through Magdalena and Datil one can spend a day at Lake Quemado where good camping, hiking and fishing can be had.

Upon leaving Lake Quemado travelers will find the fall scenery abundant along State Road 32 heading south to US 180 and into the heart of the Gila.

A stop at the catwalk for a little hike and a picnic is recommended before proceeding on to more adventuresome destinations.

Some of the best scenery the Gila has to offer is reputed to be had up around McKnight’s Cabin in the Black Range where aspen stands and open meadows provide excellent views.

McKnight’s can be accessed by State and Forest Road 152 which leads to Kingston and climbs up over Emory Pass where great views are available too.

And perhaps one of the best draws about the Gila this fall is that several previously closed creeks have been reopened to fishing for the once endangered Gila trout.

Visitors can drive to Black Canyon on Forest Road 150 and fish upstream for several miles for the native trout that has made a comeback due to extensive recovery efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Game and Fish (see related stories).

For more information about the Gila check out the U.S. Forest Service’s website at

The Gila is a hunter’s paradise too, so fall travelers need to be alert to the potential of encountering them, whether in a campground or in the woods.

It’s highly recommended to consult the state hunting proclamation or call a regional state Department of Game and Fish office to determine if and when a hunt may be occurring in an area one may wish to visit.

Most hunters are active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and bow and muzzleloader hunts require hunters to get close to their prey, usually 50 yards or less.

Those hunters don’t present as much of threat to others sharing the woods as rifle hunters may.

It can be dangerous wandering around the countryside during a rifle hunt due to the long-range lethality of the modern rifle and a rifle hunters’ willingness to shoot at distant targets.

Avoid the backcountry when a hunt is on and if venturing into the woods during hunting season to fish or hike, wear at the very least a blaze orange cap so you’re readily identifiable.

The Best of the Rest!

We would be remiss in not mentioning some of the state’s other great camping areas that are worthy of visiting in the autumn.

Percha Dam State park on the Rio Grande south of Truth or Consequences is resplendent in the fall under a canopy of colorful Cottonwood trees.

The park pales in size compared to its upstream cousins at Caballo and Elephant Butte Lakes but that’s exactly what makes it such a wonderful place to camp.

It’s rural and remote but within easy striking distance of the big lake’s attractions and the hot springs and other amenities found in the little city of Truth or Consequences.

Percha Dam State Park features shady campsites and grassy lawns to lay upon. There’s a playground for the kids and good fishing and bird watching down by the by the river.

This place is a little known jewel of the state parks system and is located about 20 miles south of T or C off I-25 at exit 59. Take State Road 187 south for about a mile to the park entrance.

Further up north one can find some of the best fall scenery in the state along the long, lonesome road into the high country of the Valle Vidal.

A hunter’s paradise in the fall with exceptional bag rates for a once in a lifetime draw, the Valle Vidal, boasts great herds of elk hiding among its many stands of brilliant aspen trees.

Camping can be had at the mountaintop Cimarron campground or down the other side of the mountain at McCrystal campground.

Camping within the Valle Vidal is restricted to these two sites unless one is hiking into the backcountry.

Cimarron campground’s proximity to Shuree Ponds and its wonderful fishing make it a popular site.

McCrystal campground has no water and is more remote, which usually results in less company.

McCrystal is also located near the restored homestead of the Ring Ranch which makes for fascinating exploration on a fine fall afternoon.

This is bear country and sightings are common so camp and hike accordingly.

The Valle Vidal’s fall colors and crisp clean, air make is a worthy destination for a fall road trip.

Take State Road 522 out of Taos to the Colorado State Line and head into the Valle Vidal at Costilla. Stay on the forest road and come out the other side on U.S. 64 at Cimarron and head over to Taos the back way for a special trip.

And lastly, the fall is a great time of year to head into Indian Country for a tour of Chaco Canyon.

Normally a hot, dusty location with little or no shade, exploring the ruins in the fall can be a much nicer experience for visitors.

Chaco is a historical goldmine for those interested in the ancient Indian cultures and the mystery of what happened to them.

The location offers stunning photographic opportunities, incredible archeology and at night? - star gazing perfection.

Driving the bone jarring, winding, dirt road into Chaco Canyon is a rite of passage for many visitors to the West and well worth the effort.

Located off U.S. 550 at the Red Mesa gas station just north of Lybrook, visitors take San Juan County Road 7900 to SJCR 7950 and on into the canyon.

Be prepared!

A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 edition of New Mexico magazine.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Abiquiu Lake Hotspot for Walleye and Bass

Ray Rael of Santa Fe shows off a Walleye he plucked from the depths of well stocked Abiquiu Lake.

Abiquiu Lake is brimming with snow runoff this year and the fishing couldn't be better for walleye, smallmouth bass and catfish.

Located about 33 miles north of Espanola on US 84, the lake is operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers and features a fine boatramp and a nice campground situated on a bluff overlooking the lake.

Anglers looking for action will find plenty to be had since the lake has filled to well above average due to a wet 2007/2008 winter.

During a recent late August trip we found brown and black speckled, 3&1/2 inch Gitzit's worked well for smallmouth bass when cast to the bank and retrieved slowly with an occasional jigging motion.

Raek picked up a fat smallmouth working the water around island points and submerged structure.

Ray Rael of Santa Fe inspects a nice sized smallmouth he caught and released at Abiqui Lake during a recent trip.

Abiquiu lake offers more than just fishing with big, pillowy clouds floating lazily over the towering, red faced cliffs that inspired renowned painter Georgia O'Keeffe who kept a studio in the nearby village of Abiquiu.

The author gets "down and dirty" while fishing at scenic Abiqui Lake recently.

Fishing from the bank of one of the lake's islands produced good results with white Gitzits featuring black backs that look much like a minnow. On retrieval many fish chased the lure right up to the bank including one big walleye.

Walleyes sport a nasty set of teeth and handling them requires a firm grip through the back of the gill.

Out in deeper water we capitalized on the walleye's predatory instincts by casting and retrieving deep diver minnows, those ones with the fat, downturned, clear plastic lips that force the lure to dive and giggle.

On retrieval these lures elicted powerful strikes from these aggressive fish.

Ray Rael shows off his dinner after a sucessful day on the water at Abiqui Lake in Augsut 2008.

By day's end we had kept two nice sized walleyes, a 20 and a 22-incher, for eating later. Only those walleyes 14-inches or bigger may be kept under fish and game regulations.

Filleted and cut into fat chunks, dipped in Luzianne, Cajun/Creole, seafood coating and then fried in a baby deep fat fryer, the walleye produces a great meal.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

African Fly Tier Delivers - You Can Too !

In the glow of the campfire after a long day of fishing I got to telling my old friend Glenn May about the African fly tier who contacted me through my outdoors blog.

A lady named Elizabeth Mbugua of Narobi, Kenya had sent me an email, offering a sales pitch for custom order flies.

The lady must have been searching the web for flyfishing related sites and came across mine.

Amazing how the web has opened up the world.

So I wrote her back and asked for some samples which soon arrived in the mail and looked and worked just fine.

But I was still skeptical, thinking it might be some kind of internet scam, so I asked May, who had just returned from a two year stint in Africa with the Peace Corps, what he thought about it.

He suggested it was probably okay and if I really wanted to have an immediate, profound and positive impact on someone's life, then I just might want to buy some flies from her.

"You have no idea what that kind of money means to those people," May said.

And it would be like my own individual, foreign aid program with no political strings attached, I thought.

So I put in an order for a bunch of flies that I hardly ever tackle on my own vise, like some of those pesky, little #22 parachute Adams and some of those #20 blue wing olives that I can never seem to find in the flyshops.

And I needed a bunch of pheasant tail nymphs in size 18 and 20 too, plus I wanted some stimulators since I seem to use so many of them over the summer.

In the end I ordered 10 dozen flies at $4 a dozen and they arrived in the mail in no time at all. She asked for payment by Western Union money order.

The work was nicely done and Mrs. Mbugua says she can also do custom orders for those who send in their own designs or have samples of flies they want tied.

I also asked her some questions about herself and how she got into this business.

Seems Mbugua was once a tour guide in her home country and some Americans suggested the idea to her, she says.

And no, she's never seen a trout in her life but she'd love to visit American some day and see what this flyfishing sport is all about.

But for now she's more concerned with feeding and educating her three children since the economy there has been suffering recently due to political turmoil.

Yeah, tell me about it girl.

And since May assured me that any money I send over there will go a long way to helping Mrs. Mbugua and her family and I can now claim my fishing is fufilling an even greater purpose.
Elizabeth Mbugua of Narobi, Kenya hard at work tying flies. Photo courtesy of Mbugua.

So anyone out there interested in doing business with Mrs. Mbugua can contact her by email at

She can also be reached by mail at Elizabeth Mbugua at P.O. Box 1923, 00-200, Nairobi, Kenya.

Mention my name and website,, so she knows her marketing efforts have paid off.

And please note that due to language differences, some nuances we take for granted may be lost in translation, so be patient, keep it simple and spread the wealth around.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited Gives Cutthroats a Hand

A Rio Grande Cutthroat from Alamitos Creek in Northern New Mexico.

Shadows dart back and forth in the cold, clear stream here in the mountains high above the Sipapu ski valley.

They’re native cutthroat trout and their purity and abundance in Alamitos Creek could be essential to the survival of the threatened species.

That’s why the Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited (TU) is spearheading an effort to build a barrier to protect the population of 4,000 to 5,000 pure strain Rio Grande cutthroats living in about seven miles of the remote creek.

“They may be one of the best allies the cutthroat has,” says Juan Martinez, fisheries biologist for the Carson National Forest. “They’re instrumental in getting projects like this done.”

Due to budget restrictions, manpower limitations and the nature of the federal bureaucracy, such a project could take years for the Forest Service to implement, Martinez says.

But with assistance from the local TU chapter, funds have already been secured to pay for an environmental analysis this winter and construction late next summer if approved.

“This is a beneficial project with minimal environmental impact so it shouldn’t be a problem,” says Martinez, a Taos native with a Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences degree from New Mexico State University.

A concrete fish barrier on the stream would prevent other non-native trout such as brown or rainbow trout from infiltrating the stream and taking over the habitat.

Alamitos Creek links up with the Rio Pueblo which flows through Peñasco and on down to the Rio Grande.

For years, an aging head gate on an irrigation ditch has helped keep invading trout from moving upstream into cutthroat habitat, but a new barrier is needed to guarantee that doesn’t happen.

Now all that protects the Alamitos Creek purestrain population of cutthroats is a vunerable wooden, irrigation headgate.

The pure strain cutthroats in Alamitos Creek could then provide an infusion of life for other cutthroat streams such as Comanche Creek in the Valle Vidal where an ambitious cutthroat restoration project is underway, says Kirk Patten, fisheries biologist with the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF).

Comanche Creek will undergo a second attempt at sterilization this summer to eliminate any non-native fish that remained in about 20 miles of stream after an initial treatment last summer.

The NMDGF then hopes to restock the creek and its tributaries by next summer with pure strain Rio Grande Cutthroats.

The overall plan is to return about 120 to 150 miles of water within the Valle Vidal watershed to exclusive cutthroat habitat.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is the state’s native fish but has seen its historic range reduced to just 10 percent with only 13 core populations left in the state, Patten says.

The colorful trout at one time ranged throughout the entire Rio Grande, Pecos and Canadian rivers watershed area, covering about 6,600 miles of water in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico, says Patten.

The population of pure strain cutthroats in Alamitos Creek could prove invaluable in helping the native trout recover.

“It’s very important to the overall status of the restoration effort,” he says.

Eggs from Alamitos Creek cutthroats can be used to raise fry at the state’s exclusive cutthroat hatchery at Seven Springs for eventual restocking in other rivers, creeks and steams.

Some of the cutthroats can also join others stored at McClure Reservoir above Santa Fe to be used as brood stock for future breeding applications.

And others could be directly transplanted into a cutthroat stream to mingle with a resident population and increase genetic diversity, Patten says.

Patten, who coordinates the state’s Rio Grande Cutthroat Recovery Project, agrees that without the help of organizations such as Trout Unlimited some of the recovery project’s goals might be hampered.

“We’re financially challenged on some of these projects,” he said. “It’s a big help to have them come up with funds for this.”

Arnold Atkins, current president of the Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the Alamitos Creek barrier would be the second the organization has raised funds for.

The group helped raised $100,000 needed to construct a new fish barrier on Comanche Creek on Forest Road 1950 near the confluence of Little Costilla Creek last year.

That barrier will keep non-native fish in the Costilla Creek watershed from migrating upstream into the cutthroat restoration area.

Then work started on this latest project, which is considered a top priority.

“This may be one of the largest populations of pure strain cutthroats in the state,” says Atkins, a semi-retired surgeon who grew up in the Española Valley and graduated from Los Alamos High School in 1960. “This was something that could do the most good in the shortest period of time, so we got on it.”

From left to right. Arnold Atkins, President of the Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited and John Miera, Carson National Forest's Camino Real District Ranger listen as Juan Martinez, Carson National Forest fisheries biologist, talks on the bank of Alamitos Creek.

The group raised about $7,000 from its members and during its annual banquet which features raffles and auctions.

Then they approached a sister Trout Unlimited chapter in Austin, Texas, the Guadalupe River Chapter, which apparently has plenty of money but little in the way of streams to spend it on and secured another $3,000, Atkins said.

The $10,000 should cover the environmental analysis of the project which is required by law.

A fund has been established, the Rio Grande Cutthroat Restoration Fund, specifically to collect funds to be used for environmental analysis because many granting organizations will not cover these costs, Atkins said.

The Truchas chapter, in conjunction with the Forest Service and state Game and Fish, applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Western Native Trout Initiative for the barrier’s construction.

“They ranked this as one of their most important projects,” he said.

The estimated to cost of construction is $70,000 to $80,000, Atkins says.

Anyone interested in contributing to the cause can contact the organization through their website at

The Rio Grande Cutthroat Restoration Project’s goal is to reduce threats to the state trout’s survival and improve its ability to prosper, says Patten.

Success of the department’s long-range plan would also nullify the need for the trout’s protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Such protection could result in land use and sport fishing restrictions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) this spring filed notice of its intent to pursue listing of the trout on their threatened or endangered species list.

Success of the reintroduction effort in the Valle Vidal would go a long way towards addressing some of the USFW concerns for listing the trout, says Patten.

Much of the groundwork for that success has already been done, for example, roads have been closed off and in some cases eliminated because they cause excessive runoff and erosion that fouls waters.

Stream banks have been rebuilt and restored with native vegetation to create a healthier environment for fish to thrive. And non-native fish such as rainbow trout and white suckers have been eliminated to allow the Rio Grande cutthroats a clean start in their restored home waters.

Much of that work has involved volunteer groups such as the Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited, New Mexico Trout, the Quivera Coalition and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

Meanwhile, high in the mountains above the highway between Peñasco and Mora lies a creek teeming with cutthroats just waiting to play their role in the ongoing recovery effort.

This article was originally published in the print edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican on Aug. 28, 2008.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Valle Vidal Cutthroat Restoration Underway Again

A Rio Grande Cutthroat

State Department of Game and Fish staff are back in the Valle Vidal and Vermejo Park this summer for another shot at sterilizing streams to be restocked later with native Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Crews in August will be re-treating about 20 miles of Comanche Creek and its tributaries north of the newly installed fish barrier on Forest Road 1950 near the confluence of Little Costilla Creek, said Kirk Patten, fisheries biologist for the state Department of Game and Fish.

Last summer, the creek's fish population underwent unlimited angler harvesting, physical removal through electro-shocking and then an application of the chemical rotenone to poison any remaining fish in an attempt to sanitize the creek for restocking with pure-strain, native, Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

But numerous fish survived the onslaught, requiring yet another attempt to eradicate the last of any remaining non-natives, Patten said.

Patten, coordinator of the state's Rio Grande cutthroat restoration effort, said it is not unusual to require repeated attempts at clearing a stream before it can be declared fit for restocking.

"The hope was we could put fish back in this fall," he said. "But it's more likely we won't stock until next summer."

Anglers this summer will be able to fish for cutthroats in the four-mile stretch of Comanche Creek upstream of the confluence of the Rio Costilla at Comanche Point to the barrier just below the confluence of Little Costilla Creek, Patten said.

"There's plenty of fish in there," he said.

An angler fishes at the confluence of the Rio Costilla and Comanche Creek.

Crews will also be heading back into Ted Turner's Vermejo Park ranch adjacent to the Valle Vidal to re-treat another stretch of stream that had been previously cleared and restocked with what were supposed to have been pure-strain cutthroats.

But after restocking the stream with trout from the state's cutthroat hatchery at Seven Springs, Turner ranch personnel reported finding a cross- breed of rainbow and cutthroat trout known as a "cutbow" inhabiting the stream.

Turner has long pursued his own wildlife conservation and reintroduction efforts on his private ranches and is cooperating with state Game and Fish officials to reintroduce the cutthroat throughout the shared watershed in the Valle Vidal area.

Mike Sloan, chief of the Fisheries Division for the state, told state game commissioners at a November 2007 meeting in Raton that rainbow trout were used to test the Seven Springs Cutthroat Hatchery before it came online and some of those were undetected and apparently got mixed in with the cutthroats delivered to Turner's ranch.

The department has since taken a number of measures to ensure that its brood stock of cutthroat trout remains pure and no more mix-ups occur, Patten said.

The department efforts include keeping a population of its cutthroat brood stock in Santa Fe's protected reservoirs and raising their young at the cutthroat-only hatchery at Seven Springs in the Jemez Mountains.

The effort is part of an ambitious, overall restoration plan to return the state's native fish to its historic ranges, such as the Valle Vidal watershed.

Comanche Creek in the Valle Vidal.

Competition from non-native fish, such as rainbow and brown trout; environmental impacts such as mining, logging and cattle grazing; and human development have reduced the trout's habitat to about 10 percent of its native range with only 13 core populations left in the state.

The state's goal is to reduce threats to the Rio Grande cutthroat trout's survival and improve its ability to prosper, Patten said.

Success of the department's long-range plan would also nullify the need for the trout's protection under the Federal Endangered Species Act, which could result in land-use and sport-fishing restrictions.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May filed notice of its intent to pursue listing of the trout on its threatened or endangered species list.

Success of the reintroduction effort in the Valle Vidal would go a long way toward addressing some of the agency's concerns for listing the trout, Patten said.

Much of the groundwork for that success has already been greatly enhanced by habitat work done on Comanche Creek and the surrounding countryside.

Roads are nearly closed off or, in some cases, roads that cause excessive runoff and erosion that fouls waters have been eliminated.

Stream banks have been rebuilt and restored with native vegetation to create a healthier environment for fish to thrive. And non-native fish such as rainbow trout and white suckers have been eliminated to allow the Rio Grande cutthroats a clean start in their restored home waters.

Much of that work has involved volunteer groups such as the Truchas Chapter of Trout Unlimited, New Mexico Trout, the Quivera Coalition and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation.

This article also appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Jude Duran - The Reasons Behind the Bank Robbery

Accused bank robber and former San Juan River guide, Jude Duran, robbed a Colorado bank because he feared the political direction the country was taking and wanted to prepare himself with guns and money, according to court records in the case.

Duran remains held without bond at a federal prison in Littleton, Colo., where he is charged with a single count of bank robbery that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. His case is set to go trial in Denver on Oct. 14.

Duran, 29, of Flora Vista, was found to be a threat to the community and denied bond during a June detention hearing before US Magistrate Judge Kathleen Tafoya, according to court records in the
case. (See the court records here .)

The judge cited a number of reasons in denying bond including statements Duran allegedly made to police following his arrest for the May, 2008, armed robbery of a bank in Montrose, Colo.

Tafoya noted Duran told officers he robbed the bank because he “does not like the way the country is going (politically) and he wanted to prepare himself financially and with weapons,” according to court records in the case.

Tafoya noted that the political climate hadn’t changed since the robbery and thus she was reluctant to release him for fear he may do it again.

Tafoya also noted that although Duran was being treated for mental health issues including obsessive-compulsive disorder he willfully declined to take medication to control himself the day of the robbery.

Tafoya also cited the premeditated nature of the crime, which Duran admitted he’d been planning from months and included the black market purchase of a handgun that he used to threaten tellers during the holdup, according to court records.

Tafoya noted numerous supporters of Duran wrote the court arguing his behavior was uncharacteristic, thus fueling her determination that if released, Duran’s obsessive behavior might continue undetected by friends and family.

Duran posted a letter on his website at in which he revealed his mental condition, lamented his predicament and appealed for financial assistance. It has since been removed but a copy can be seen here .

Before his arrest, Duran, an Albuquerque native, was a popular and well known, independent San Juan River guide who’d gained notoriety for his support of the use of multiple fly rigs on the blue ribbon, trout stream below Navajo Dam.

Such rigs have since been banned on the San Juan River at the request of a coalition of guides and fly shops who claimed the rigs caused needless death and injury to trout in the legendary trout fishery.

See related story about the two fly rule and Jude Duran here .

This article was originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican on 8/17/08.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Valle Caldera Opens East Fork of Jemez River to Public Fishing

The Valles Caldera National Preserve has opened the East Fork of the Jemez River to fishing by reservation and for a fee.

The new program is more flexible than the lottery system already in place for those who want to fish the Rio San Antonio on the backside of the sprawling ranch located between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs on State Road 4, says Preserve Manager Dennis Trujillo.

Customers can now spend a day on the front half of the 89,000-acre ranch, stalking trout in about 10 miles of stream including the East Fork of the Jemez River and Jaramillo Creek, he said.

Ten reservation slots are available daily, six for the public and four for preserve-approved guides and the cost to the public is $50 for a day’s access and fishing and $125 for guides’ clients, Trujillo said.

Interested anglers can reserve slots online for a future date or call the preserve at (505) 670-1612 or drop by to see if any slots remain unfilled on any given day.

Fishing is catch and release with barbless hooks, no waders of nets allowed to protect against whirling disease. Pets are not allowed.

Anglers can then hike in and fish anywhere they want on the East Fork of the Jemez River and Jaramillo Creek anytime between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. and will share the water with their fellow anglers.

“It offers more flexibility for the customer,” Trujillo said.

In contrast, the San Antonio fishing program relegates anglers to a “beat” or section of the stream about a mile or so long with no swapping of beats allowed.

Fishing is catch and release with barbless hooks, no waders of nets allowed and a bag limit of five fish.

San Antonio anglers are also ferried to their assigned location on the river and must remain there until picked up by a preserve employee or volunteer.

And San Antonio anglers must arrive by 5:45 a.m. and leave by 2 p.m. They pay $5 per chance to win in the lottery and $25 to fish if they win.

The author and a fishing partner, former Albuquerque Tribune fishing columnist and Rio Grande Sun reporter, Glenn May, were recently granted access to try out the fishing on the ranch formerly known as the Baca.

Purchased by the federal government from the Dunigan family of Texas in 2000 for a little over a $100 million, the preserve is mandated to operate as a working ranch with public access and become self sufficient by 2015.

According to its latest report to Congress the preserve was budgeted $3.5 million in 2007 for operations, earned $750,000 from its recreation and other programs and saw about 12,000 visitors that year.

See the preserves' website at for more information about its operations.

Driving through the early morning fog as elk bounded across the gravel road, we couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the ranch, its wildlife and scenery.

Coming around a corner as we searched for the headwaters of the East Fork we encountered two bull elk staring us down, their velvet covered racks impressively highlighted by the mist behind them.

At another point a wary coyote ran up a hillside, constantly looking over its shoulder as it headed for safety.

And elk herds hung out in the tree line, gazing down at us before slowly disappearing into the shade.

We never did find the headwaters of the East Fork but we did stumble across little Jaramillo Creek meandering through the tall grass.

And a few casts in a pool by the road produced strikes from one of its residents.
On to the lower East Fork of the Jemez River we choose a stretch between the parking area and the front gate. We felt rushed as menacing thunderclouds loomed overhead and the possibility of lightning advanced.

Fighting through relentless swarms of painful deer flies and eager strikes from chubs sharing this slow moving, shallow stretch of creek, May caught and released a nice, 14-inch rainbow trout while I picked up a smaller version upstream.

Photo courtesy of Glenn F. May.

Trujillo says the stream is chock full of 8- to 12-inch average sized fish with some bigger ones in the lower stretch of the stream and some anglers have reported 50 fish days.

May noted one might have similar luck on other public streams for far less money but concluded it was the scenery that really made it worth the trip.

“This would be a great gift to give someone who loves the outdoors and fishes,” he said.

And perhaps that’s really what makes the Valles Caldera so unique, it’s a special treat to visit and enjoy for a day.

If You Go:

From Santa Fe head north on US84/285 to Pojoaque and take State Road 502 to White Rock and then follow State Road 4 up through the mountains and upon emerging into a great, open area look for the entrance to the preserve on your right, about 65 miles. A much longer but scenic round trip involves heading south on I-25 to Bernalillo and taking State Road 550 west to the State Road 4 turnoff at San Ysidro, passing through Jemez Pueblo, Jemez Springs and La Cueva to the preserve and then heading back to Santa Fe through White Rock and Pojoaque, about 170 miles.

This article also appeared in what was the last edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section which has since been eliminated along with several other sections as a cost cutting measure.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Ant Fall on the San Juan River Amazes Anglers

Glenn F. May shows off a nice San Juan River Rainbow Trout caught during an ant fall on July 21, 2008. Photo courtesy of a passing angler.

They landed on the water with a plop and then began to wiggle and squirm.

Big, black, flying ants and plenty of them.

It didn’t take long for the trout to rise from the bottom and start gulping them down.

We had lucked into the rare and legendary ant fall on the trophy class waters of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam in the northwestern corner of New Mexico.

Our luck started with a stop in at Abe’s Motel and Fly shop where the guy behind the counter noted the previous evening’s heavy rain and suggested conditions were ripe for such an event.

Then Ron of Resolution Guide Service wandered in looking for Chernobyl Ants and offered us suggestions on where and how to fish them, in the fast water with a splash, he said.

This was the same guy who went out of his way pick me up one day while I was trying to thumb a ride from the “take-out” at the gravel pit back up to the “put-in” at Texas Hole.

My brother-in-law was up there waiting for me with his drift boat. I had driven the truck down under the mistaken assumption that it would be easy to thumb a ride back up.

Ron picked me up and told me otherwise.

Nice guy, most fishermen are, but it seems there’s plenty of others in this neck of the woods who couldn’t be bothered.

So we grabbed a few of the Chernobyls along with a number of smaller ant patterns featuring florescent green foam indicators on top.

Armed with these big, heavy flies we set out for our old haunting grounds at Baetis Bend.

I was fishing with my oldest, best fishing buddy and also a fellow former, newspaper reporter, Glenn Foster May, who just returned from a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Africa.

His return to the San Juan was to be the opening act in several weeks of fishing New Mexico and Colorado to celebrate his homecoming.

We waded into the river through the a foggy mist and set up shop by the island where May got right into them while fishing deep with the gray, RS2, Baetis emerger for a dropper.

My time came when the ants began to fall since I prefer dry flies off the top.

I took to the top water action with a passion, casting to each rising fish and then hooking into them with satisfaction.

I always looked at fishing nymphs as a way to simply pass the time till the risers appeared, especially here on the San Juan.

These fish fought hard, ran deep and leaped magnificently.

They were beautifully colored Rainbow Trout with the occasional Brown Trout mixed in, all well within the 16 to 19-inch range and one 20-incher to May’s credit.

I couldn’t help but wonder what the "doom and gloomers" who constantly whine about the San Juan’s decline would have to say on a day like today.

Probably something like it used to be even better, young fella!

But on this day the river was in great condition due to an unusually wet winter that forced the Bureau of Reclamation to release reservoir water at a much higher rate and for much longer than usual.

The high flows scoured out silt and sediment which improves insect production and gave the river’s dense population of trout a break from near constant fishing pressure found at lower flows.

Now we were enjoying the benefit as we caught and released one amazing fish after another.

But it was up in the seam of the deep run just below the lower flats that I hooked into the fish of the trip, a monster that refused to come out of the deep water and seemed to have fought forever.

I finally landed her by the bank and hurried to take some photos before returning her to the water.

Then I realized she wasn’t recovering well once she was back in the water.

I held her tail and slipped a hand under her belly and began to gently sway her back and forth to get some water flowing over her gills.

She seemed to recover so I let her go and watched as she slowly moved off to a nearby underwater outcrop where she stopped and rested.

I watched as she sat motionless, her mouth opening and closing and then she began to roll over onto her side.

I waded out and reached in to right her and held her again, swaying her back and forth in the water in an effort to keep her alive.

I felt ashamed for subjecting her to the added strain of suffocating on the bank while she waited for me to take her photograph.

I hoped and prayed she would recover and then suddenly she just seemed to snap awake and struggled to escape my grip.

I let her go and she swam off into the deeper water where she returned to the surface several times to seemingly take a breath of air.

Then she disappeared back into the depths.

We figured that the fish must have been 24 or 25 inches long when comparing her to the 22-inch, overall length of my net.

The rain of ants ended soon that overcast morning but I found that the trout up in the lower flats were still keying in on the surface so I switched to a stimulator and earned plenty more strikes.

We had stumbled into a rare day that normally only those who work on the river have the chance experience.

The following morning we decided to fish in the quiet, lower stretch of the river where San Juan Fisheries Biologist, Marc Wethington, of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish had installed strategically placed boulders to improve the habitat for trout.

We found plenty of willing fish here to take our flies but were more impressed with the depth of some of the pools that had been carved out by the high water behind the installed boulders.

The stream bottom here also featured a clean gravel bed, free of the heavy layer of silt and sand that used to be found here before the habitat work had been done.

Apparently the boulders did their job in keeping the water churned up so sediment remained suspended in the water to be carried downstream.

Add some more seed stock here and this area will be great place to get away from the crowds found upstream.

This too was another subject the "doom and gloomers" of the San Juan who claimed this project was just a waste of time and money.

They point fingers at the oil and gas industry and the bureau of reclamation and claim they're ruining the river.

But do they offer anything in the way of concrete solutions to the problem of low water flows and silt like this project did?

I just wonder sometimes what it is these folks want anyhow?

It seems that they’ve forgotten that the dam was created to store and deliver water and the great fishing is simply a byproduct of that much larger mission.

They should try spending a day on some of New Mexico's real streams where sucessful fishing can be tough work and reeling in a single, 14-inch Brown is a real prize.

I mean it’s great to get into the number and size of the fish found below Navajo Dam but lets get real, the San Juan fishery is nothing more than an artificially created theme park that only exists because of the dam’s greater mission.

Some of these guys might want to tone down the rhetoric and instead come up with some real, workable solutions to the issues before they completely alienate those whose support they'll really need to "save the river."

Photo courtesy of Glenn F. May.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Santa Cruz Lake Delivers

It’s a fine way to wile away a summer afternoon, sitting under the cool shade of a towering cottonwood, watching the clouds build up and waiting for a fish to bite.

And Santa Cruz Lake in the hills overlooking Española delivers in a big way.

Located just 35 miles north of Santa Fe, this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operated recreation area provides camping and picnic shelters, a boat dock and floating fishing pier and some of the cleanest restrooms in the business.

“We’re well known for that,” Karen Martinez says with pride after she checks a visitor’s permit at the lake’s office one recent day.

In years past the lake might have been better known for its rowdy residents, auto break-ins, random thefts and trashed-out atmosphere.

But conditions have improved at the lake with regular patrols and oversight from hardworking locals like Martinez, 49, of Rio Chiquito.

“Because someone’s here all the time now, things have quieted down,” she says with guarded optimism. “We try different things to keep it that way.”

Martinez, a seasonal BLM worker, says local law enforcement officers also make it a habit to swing through the recreation area on a routine basis, especially on the weekends and evenings, to keep a lid on things.

Nonetheless, she cautions those who visit the remote lake located below the historic Spanish settlement of Cundiyo.

“I wouldn’t leave a generator sitting out while you go fishing all day,” she said. “It’s just common sense. Secure your valuables.”

And while the lake has always been a favorite spot for Española Valley locals, the high price of gas these days has made it even more popular.

“We’ve got people from Española bringing up their motor homes,” she says with a laugh.

That’s quite a feat considering the steep, narrow, twisty road that leads down to the lake’s recreation area and the limited number of campsites that can accommodate such vehicles.

The lake is well known among anglers for another reason.

It is the home of the state record rainbow trout held by Peter Romero of Santa Fe who in March 1999 while fishing with six-pound test line and a homemade jig is said to have hooked and landed a 31-pound, 33½-inch rainbow trout.

A battered picture of Romero holding the fish graces the bulletin board inside the BLM’s office at the lake.

The lake is popular with boaters and allows their use at trolling speed only. The facilities at the lake include a good ramp and a spacious parking lot.

Those who fish from the bank can find plenty of trails leading around the lake to prime fishing spots including a steep, tortuous trail from the overlook campground down to the north end of the lake where Santa Cruz creek enters.

The overlook campground features several campsites situated along the rim of a mesa high above the lake. It is a remote campground occasionally visited by locals and not as well patrolled as the lakeside recreation area.

The overlook campground offers greats views of the lake and Española Valley below and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the rear.

Martinez said what with the price of gas being what it is these days there seems to be more out-of-towners stopping by at the lake.

“We’re getting a lots of new folks asking for information,” she says.

Martinez notes that a season’s pass for admission to the lake and other BLM recreation areas in northern New Mexico like the Rio Grande at Pilar and at the Wild Rivers at Cerro is a bargain for only $20 a year.

The season pass allows unlimited day use at these areas while a one-day pass costs $5.

Martinez said visitors should know swimming isn’t allowed at the lake but waist deep wading is tolerated. Well-behaved and leashed dogs are welcome and alcohol consumption is not prohibited.

If You Go:

From Santa Fe take 84/285 north to the Nambe turnoff just north of Pojoaque. Take State Road 503 up through the village of Cundiyo and follow the sign down to Santa Cruz Lake. On the way, just past the turnoff to Chimayo, you will see the entrance to the Santa Cruz overlook; pull in here for a great view of the lake and surrounding valley. About 35 miles one-way. Last chance for gas and groceries in Pojoaque.

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