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.