In an effort to reduce inadvertent damage and deaths to fish, state game commissioners are slated to consider adoption of a rule to limit anglers to the use of just two flies on quality waters.
The rule targets anglers who fly fish and applies to the state’s “quality waters” where anglers are restricted to the use of flies or natural lures and harvesting is reduced or eliminated to improve fishing quality.
Anglers who use bait would be unaffected by the proposed rule change.
Currently there is no restriction on the number of flies that an angler may use while fly-fishing and some say that’s a problem on quality waters such as the San Juan River, the state’s blue-ribbon trout fishery below Navajo Dam.
“ I don’t see how anyone who loves this river can be opposed to this,” said T. J. Massey , 32, of San Juan River Outfitters. “ It’s about conserving the fishery so my kids and others can experience it like I have.”
Massey says the practice of stringing three, four or more flies on a line to improve the chance of catching a fish is harming the San Juan River’s trout population and doesn’t provide fish with a sporting chance.
“Fishing with multiple flies is brutal,” Massey said. "I just cringe thinking about it."
Fish easily become entangled and wrapped up in multiple fly rigs, are much more likely to become foul-hooked, and appear to be dying more often from these kinds of encounters, Massey said.
Guides and anglers on the San Juan have reported seeing more injured and dead fish on the river in recent years and they find it disturbing. Many lay much of the blame on the use of multiple flies.
Thus Massey has been a driving force behind an effort to adopt the limitation, which he claims enjoys considerable support among many other guides, anglers and state Department of Game and Fish staff.
But while Massey’s petition in support of the rule boasts some of the best-known names in the business, at least one guide who also works on the San Juan River has bucked the trend and opposes the rule.
Jude Duran, 28, of Flora Vista, is an independent guide with six years work experience on the river and he questions the need for such a rule.
“I just question whether it’s even necessary, hardly anybody even uses them,” Duran said of the multiple fly rigs. “Sure it wouldn’t hurt, but will it be effective? Or will this just be another useless law on the books?”
Duran says he’d rather retain his right to use the questionable rigs rather than lose it and also notes there’s no evidence to prove more fish are being injured and killed by multiple fly rigs.
Yet Duran said he rarely uses the questionable rigs although he calls their use a “valid technique” if done properly.
Duran considers the rule adoption a waste of time and money for the state because new signs will have to be posted, new fishing proclamations printed and anglers educated.
“I worry about them having enough to do as it is,” he said.
Duran said he’d rather see the state spending the same time and money on enforcing the prohibition against the use of barbed hooks which he suspects causes more damage than the use of multiple flies on the San Juan River’s quality waters.
“Enforce that rule and do more catch-and-release education, that would be more helpful than this,” Duran said.
The state Department of Game and Fish’s fisheries biologist on the San Juan River, Marc Wethington, says he hasn’t done a specific study to determine the impact multiple fly rigs or barbed hooks may be having upon the trout population in the river.
However, anecdotal evidence, such as fish inspections conducted during frequent and routine electro shocking, reveals almost all trout in the San Juan River’s quality waters show signs of having been hooked or injured by anglers.
Wethington, who has worked on the river for 13 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, suspects that most fish in the San Juan River’s quality waters will die inevitably from some form of angler induced mortality.
“Very few of these fish are going to die from old age,” he said.
So common sense dictates that anything that can be done to decrease harm to the river’s trout population will help increase the quality of the fishing experience there, he said.
And while most fly fishing anglers are generally law abiding and use barbless hooks as required, many have experimented with and use multiple fly rigs because there is no rule prohibiting them, he said.
Wethington said he supports the rule adoption. He would also like to see more guides and anglers consider quality, not quantity, when gauging their fishing experience on the San Juan River and act accordingly.
And so far the majority of comments received by the state Department of Game and Fish’s Albuquerque office seem to support just that, expressing an interest in preserving the quality of the San Juan’s fishing experience and decrying the implicit “greed” behind the use of multiple fly combinations, said Rick Castell, state Department of Game and Fish’s fisheries manager for the Northwest Area, which includes the San Juan River below Navajo Dam.
“A lot of this is aesthetics too,” he said.
People are just sick and tired of seeing so many dead and maimed fish on the San Juan River and they want to do something about it, he said.
Castell said he wouldn’t expect any problem from the fly fishing community in enforcing the rule if it’s adopted, as they tend to police themselves well.
Those interested in wading in on the proposed rule debate can use the email link under the public comment section of the Department’s website.
The proposed rule change is scheduled to go before the state Game Commission for consideration at its scheduled meeting in Santa Fe on Feb. 21, 2008, at the state Capitol in Room 322.
For more information such as the proposed regulation, agenda briefings, and other information, just look under the commission tab on the Department’s website.
The San Juan is one of the West’s top trout waters, a legendary, trophy-class trout fishery fueled by consistent flows and clear, cold water. The river lures anglers from all over the world to fish its quality waters, which are home to an estimated 75,000 trout.
The first quarter mile of the river below Navajo Dam is strictly catch and release and the remaining four miles have a bag limit of one trout over 20 inches with the angler required to stop fishing once they have taken a fish of that size, that day.
The use of barbless hooks on flies is required in the quality waters but the number of flies on a single line is currently not restricted.
Below the quality waters, anglers can use bait and the normal bag limit is in effect on public access to another 3.5 miles of the San Juan River River including the Cottonwood Campground area.
Anglers spend about 250,000 hours a year fishing on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam and contribute an estimated $20 million to $30 million to the state’s economy annually, according to Wethington.
This article also appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.
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