The wading season on the San Juan River ended abruptly this week for most anglers after the federal Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) increased the water flow from Navajo Lake by fivefold to accommodate higher than expected snow runoff.
Flows have been cranked up to 3,000 cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) to release water stored in the reservoir above Navajo Dam in an effort to make room for almost twice the usual amount of runoff from snow in the San Juan Mountains.
“There’ll be quite a bit more depth and a whole lot more push,” Marc Wethington, fisheries biologist for the state Department of Game and Fish, said of the river he has worked for the past twelve years.
The river’s flow is expected to remain at 3,000 CFS until sometime in May when it’ll be increased to 5,000 CFS and then held at that level for about a month, as has been the usual practice in past years.
The higher flow of 5,000 CFS not only delivers stored water downstream to designated users but also mimics the annual spring flooding experienced by natural rivers.
The higher flow helps scour out silt and sediment in the riverbed which promotes a healthier fish habitat.
For most years, during the winter and early spring, the flow on the San Juan River typically remained at a reduced level of about 500 CFS which allowed anglers to easily wade and fish.
But with the increased snow pack this year, the usual winter wading season has been cut short leaving some guides concerned about a possible loss of business.
“I think the proposed flows of 3,000 CFS for almost four months will profoundly hurt the fly fishing industry in the San Juan River Valley,” Jude Duran wrote on the forum at Mike Mora’s Fly Fishing the San Juan River, a website at www.ifly4trout.com.
“While this may be temporarily good for the fish and a small portion of the river bottom," he wrote. "This is bad for the valley, bad for recreational anglers these four months and could be dangerous for anglers who fall or don’t know the river well.”
Duran, 28, of Flora Vista, is an independent guide with six years work experience on the river.
However, not all guides on the San Juan River are as concerned about their business as Duran.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Larry Johnson, 54, of Soaring Eagle Lodge and a 10-year veteran of guiding on the San Juan River.
Johnson said the increased flows will be great for the river’s fish habitat and will mean stronger, healthier fish come summer.
As for his business, most of his customers prefer to fish from a drift boat and the higher flows are great for that type of fishing, Johnson said.
Those who might shy away from the higher flows could be locals who wade and fish the river.
But Johnson noted that the higher flows will open up other areas of the river to waders such as the back channels and areas that had been too shallow to hold fish at previously lower levels.
Johnson said anglers should get out there and safely explore these new areas for a whole new, and perhaps more meaningful, angling experience.
Johnson suggested that waders use a staff for stability, a floatation device in a case of an unexpected spill and heavier tackle to deal with the river’s increased flow.
Wethington said increased flows for lengthier periods of time would produce exceptional conditions for insects to thrive which in turn nourishes the river’s trout population.
“Look for stellar conditions this summer,” he said. “Particularly in the bait waters.”
Wethington said he intends to continue stocking lower stretches of the river which have undergone recent habitat improvement projects.
Wethington noted that under high water conditions these trout will have an opportunity to spread out and hide from the near constant fishing pressure that the popular river usually sustains.
Thus, these fish will have an opportunity to grow stronger and healthier in preparation for their eventual encounter with the many anglers who visit the state’s premier trout fishery on a daily basis.
Wethington noted that the current higher flows would require more caution when wading but that stronger, more experienced anglers who are familiar with the river’s terrain, shouldn’t have a problem.
Anglers spend about 250,000 hours a year fishing on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam. It is home to an estimated 75,000 trout and is estimated to contribute $20 million to $30 million to the state’s economy annually, Wethington said.
This article also appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.
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