Peggy Harrell and a Navajo Lake smallmouth bass.
It’s fly fishing at its best, a double header weekend, pursuing trophy sized trout on New Mexico’s legendary San Juan River one day and then casting to aggressive, small mouth bass on nearby Navajo Lake the next.
Navajo Lake in northwestern New Mexico harbors the cold clear waters that feed the San Juan River’s fabled blue ribbon trout fishery while also providing a home to a wide variety of warm water, sport fish including the feisty little, bass with the blood red eyes.
“It’s widely considered by many to be the top small mouth bass fishery in the state,” says Marc Wethington, a Department of Game and Fish fisheries biologist stationed on the San Juan.
Twenty-four-square-mile, Navajo Lake plays host to numerous bass tournaments every year and is expected to produce the state’s smallmouth bass record, again, someday soon, says Mark Nesbit of Blue Sky Flyfishing of Navajo Dam.
Navajo Lake once held the state’s smallmouth bass record for a 22-inch, six pound, 14-ounce fish caught back in 1999. That record has since fallen to Ute Lake on the eastern plains of New Mexico where a 24-inch, seven pound, three ounce whopper was snared in 2006.
“I love em, they’re tough, they fight, they’ve got attitude,” Nesbit says of the small mouth bass found in the 15,000 acre lake straddling the Colorado and New Mexico border.
Most days Nesbit finds himself on the San Juan River guiding clients along the quality waters in search of Rainbow and Brown trout.
It’s where the real money is as the river draws thousands of anglers to its banks every year with most coming from out of state and in need of a guide.
But at least a dozen or more times a year Nesbit gets to put on his Captain’s hat and take clients out onto the lake in search of both large and small mouth bass, northern pike and the ever smart and elusive carp.
The best times of year to hit the lake are in the spring and fall and Nesbit says he enjoys turning clients on to the art of fly fishing on the lake, using big streamers to entice the predatory and territorial pike or small poppers and ant patterns to bring the bass and carp to the surface.
He does it for work but mostly for fun, Nesbit says.
One spring day in 2009 Nesbit and his wife, Peggy Harrell, also a San Juan River Guide, took the author along to fish the lake for just that purpose,to have a little fun, relax in the warm sunshine and enjoy the spectacular scenery.
Peggy Harrell and Mark Nesbit and their bass boat at Navajo Lake.
While motoring along in Nesbit’s 18.5 foot long, bass boat powered by a 175 horsepower, outboard motor, we happened to spy a couple of fish swirling about the surface under an overhanging rock along the rocky shore line.
Upon approaching we saw that one fish had partially inhaled another and was in the process of trying to wolf it down while a third stalked it in an attempt to steal its prize.
Nesbit laid out some line from his fly rod and deftly dropped an ant pattern with a splash upon the surface. The pursuing fish turned from its previous quarry and raced over to the fly, snatching it from the surface greedily.
Nesbit set the hook as we all laughed in amazement and then reeled in a nice small mouth bass, just one of dozens we caught that day.
The hottest time for small mouth bass is generally from mid-March through mid-June and then again in the fall from mid September through November, Nesbit says.
Nesbit prefers fly fishing for the smallies with top water lures like poppers and jerk baits and large ant and cicada patterns. They will also chase soft plastic lures bounced off the rocks and jigged as they drop down the rock face below the surface, he says.
Anglers can also fish a little deeper during this same season for largemouth bass lurking amid the submerged rocks and trees found along the sheer cliff faces that make up a great deal of Navajo Lake’s extensive shoreline.
Soft plastics like Gitzits and Senko worms are quickly pursued by largemouth bass that can reach sizes up to 8 to 10 pounds and will put a bend in your rod, Nesbit said.
During our outing we managed to land several largemouth that had repeatedly taken a watermelon speckled Gitzit.
But for some real fun Nesbit likes to stalk the crafty carp that inhabit the lake.
These big fish are social animals that tend to travel in groups and can often be seen swimming just below the surface.
They will take a well placed fly, like the cicada pattern, but stealth is important in catching one of these monsters, Nesbit says.
Carp are thought to emit a scent or electromagnetic signal that alerts other carp in the area to danger, accounting for their ability to all disappear just as a lure splash lands in their vicinity, Nesbit said.
“If you can fool one of them you’ve done your work, “Nesbit says.
During a day on the lake with a guide like Nesbit, anglers can conceivably catch all of these species as well as crappie, bluegill and perch and catfish.
Mark Nesbit shows off a nice Navajo Lake largemouth bass.Nesbit said he prefers to practice catch and release to sustain the fishery at Navajo Lake and appreciates clients who share the same ideology.
“Why not just take a picture and return the fish to the water so someone else can enjoy the same thrill of the catch,” he says.
Nesbit says he’d also like to see the bag limit on the lake reduced to to encourage people to take less fish from the water and a slot limit imposed setting a minimum size at which fish can be harvested.
“You get a lot of people coming up here, fishing their limit and they end up with a freezer full of fish they throw out six months later,” Nesbit said. “It’s a waste of the resource.”
And if anybody’s actually eating their daily limit of fish caught in some New Mexico lakes, they might want to consult the state’s advisories about heavy metals and other toxins found in fish, Nesbit said.
Anglers who eat their catch should review the state Environment Department Fish Consumption Advisories for more information regarding tests done on fish at various bodies of water throughout the state, including the contaminants found and the recommended levels of consumption.
Nesbit says one of the best things about Navajo lake is the ability to get away from it all for the day.
With many secluded coves, sandy beaches and mile and mile of remote shoreline, one can truly escape at Navajo Lake.
Boat rentals are available at the marina and visitors should be prepared for any kind of weather by dressing in layers and bringing a raincoat, wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and plenty of water.
Nesbit said Navajo Lake can be an unforgiving place for those who mess with it.
“This is no pond where you can swim 30 yards and climb out,” he says. “This is a big, deep lake that deserves respect."
Navajo Lake and Marina.
Because of its size and remoteness, those who venture out onto the lake should be prepared to take shelter from sudden storms and use common sense when such situations arise.
The afternoon we were out we could hear thunder far off to the north where rainclouds could be seen building, but on the lake it remained sunny and mild.
Nesbit said we had ten more minutes to fish and then began to stow his gear.
We were stowing the last of the gear and preparing to dash across the lake as the wind began to rise and the sky darkened.
“I’ve seen squalls come up and cover this lake with four foot waves just like that,” Nesbit said with snap of his fingers.
And that’s when you have to decide either to seek shelter in a cove and ride it out or run for shore.
And a lot of that depends on your boat, Nesbit says.
That afternoon we sped across the lake at speed, riding the crest of the waves and pulling into the boat launch just as the rain began to come down.
Nesbit who is celebrating his 10th year in business as a fishing guide working out of Navajo Dam, had called it just right.
Nesbit grew up in Albuquerque where he graduated from Eldorado High in 1975. His is Dad was a chemical engineer, and his Mom, a homemaker and part time waitress, used to take him and his older brother, Paul, camping and fishing in the Pecos and Jemez Mountains, when they were kids.
“Mom was from Germany and knew how to fish for trout,” Nesbit said. “She used cheese and it worked pretty damn good.”
But it wasn’t until later in life, as he split his time between wrenching on motorcycles and driving eighteen wheelers, that Nesbit got bit by the fly fishing bug and then the San Juan River.
Mark Nesbit with one of Navajo lake's other resident fish.
He was working as a Jet Ski repairman at a shop in Albuquerque when a co-worker talked him into going fly fishing on the Pecos.
Nesbit had fished using traditional means for years, particularly when living out in California on the Sacramento River where he chased steelhead trout.
But the San Juan was a whole different deal and a few hundred dollars later he had the gear he needed to chase trout on the fly.
“So we’re out there on the river and this guy shows me how to cast, once, twice,” Nesbit says. “Then he hands me the rod and takes off.”
Nesbit says he managed to lay his caddis fly down on the water and watched as a little trout came to the surface to sip it.
“That literally changed my life,” he says.
Nesbit began making trips to the San Juan River every chance he got and became proficient at working the water.
Then he jumped on the opportunity to buy a piece of property in the area thinking he could open a Jet Ski rental and repair shop there someday.
But that didn’t work out so instead he took a job at a motorcycle shop in Durango where he could at least he could be close to the river that had captured his heart.
Then one day he found himself headed back out onto the road, behind the wheel again, and thinking of selling his property off to finance a new truck.
But instead he turned his property over and bought another, now his current homestead on a bluff overlooking the river where he has since planted his roots and hung out his shingle.
After ten years in the guide business, Nesbit is optimistic about the San Juan River’s future. He knows the legendary flows that made the river famous will probably never return and sees no sense in dwelling on the past.
Instead he thinks efforts that are already underway, like plans to install a diversion at Rex Smith Wash at Texas Hole to limit silt and sediment from entering the river will accomplish much to keep the river viable.
Nesbit said he also supports some of the in-stream habitat improvement projects like those found below Simon Canyon where he now sees more bug life and a more robust trout population in what was once a barren area.
Nesbit says efforts to draw attention to the river have helped prompt state game and Fish Officials to resume stocking the river at a more sustainable level, created new regulations like the two fly rule and catch and release only within the entire quality waters and led to stepped up law enforcement, all of which will help keep the river healthy and productive for anglers.
“Overall I’d say the future for the river is good,” he said.