Monday, July 26, 2010

Floating the Lower San Juan River - Big Browns, No Crowds, Great Fishing !

Tim McCarthy shows off a nice brown trout from the lower San Juan river.

It’s eight and half miles of glorious water loaded with big, bad, brown trout that most anglers visiting the San Juan River pass up on a regular basis.

Many have seen this lower stretch of river from the road as they motored up to their favorite fishing hole on this famous river’s, quality waters.

And with so many fish to be had upstream, an estimated 70,000 in four miles of public access, many don’t even think about fishing down below.

After all, you’d need a boat and some high water to easily float downstream to those fabled browns.

But that’s just what we did when we set out to explore this lower river on a midsummer expedition to the lower waters of the San Juan River.

The flows on the river this summer were kicked up to around 950 cubic-feet-per-second for a few weeks to supplement lower flows from the Animas River so a minimum flow could be maintained downstream for endangered fish.

Taking advantage of the higher water was drift boat owner, Tim McCarthy, of Albuquerque who is also the author’s brother-in-law. Our guest for the day was Soaring Eagle Lodge owner, Larry Johnson, who frequently guides on the lower river and was happy to be taken fishing for a change.  

Johnson noted that during higher flows the lower river is easier to navigate and the fish less spooky and more spread out. 

Johnson was cautiously optimistic about our chances for success but sure seemed to be grinning a lot. 

Larry Johnson of Soaring Eagle Lodge.

We put the drift boat in at the state game and fish department ‘s access point just below the town of Navajo Dam, off San Juan County Road 4277, next to the Rainbow Lodge.

We then took the truck and trailer downstream to the game and fish’s “take out” area just above the Hammond diversion dam.

The take out can be found by taking a right onto a dirt road at the top of a hill just off State Road 511 about a half mile shy of U.S. 64. The road is unmarked save for a skinny green post, bearing a thin, red placard with the numbers 5367, in white, running down it.

One might want to familiarize themselves with the area first on Google Earth, then inquire at a fly shop for local directions and finally do some scouting around before hauling a trailer down there.

The unimproved, dirt road may be impassable when wet and is steep and rutted at some points.

After dropping off the truck and trailer we climbed into our second vehicle and headed back upstream to begin our day-long trip.

We’d lucked into incredible weather as the day began cool and overcast after a week-long, record breaking, heat wave had gripped the area.

The monsoon season was now just beginning, it had rained the night before and it was forecast to do the same again later today.

Johnson suggested we rig up one of his green, woolly boogers sporting rubber legs, a cone head and a trailing hook. He said just chuck it over towards the banks and strip it back with a series of short, quick retrieves. 

The deadliest booger.

This proved to be the fly and the technique for the day as we didn’t see a rising fish or a good hatch the entire float. 

Swapping off on the oars, we all took turns chucking the green monsters at the ledges, edges and green water, producing attacks from a steady supply of eager brown trout. 

The key to hooking them was to keep the lure moving, the rod tip low to the water and setting the hook with a quick strip of the line.

It was exciting to see from the vantage point of the boat, the lure threading its way through then water and then the flash of a fish as it came out of hiding to attack it.

We caught a steady supply of browns in a variety of sizes, verifying what game and fish department surveys by electro shocking had already proven, a lot of healthy, brown trout live in these lower waters.

“There’s no doubt about it, there’s some good sized fish down there,” says Marc Wethington, the state Department of Game and Fish’s fisheries biologist stationed on the river. “And they don’t get the pressure you see upstream.”

And that resulted in some great acrobatic displays as many a surprised brown jumped and fought like one might normally expect from a Rainbow trout.

The trip downstream took about six hours with some brief rain showers and overcast conditions during the morning and then sunny and much warmer during the afternoon.

We were well equipped with raincoats, wide-brimmed hats, sunscreen, insect repellent and plenty of cold water and snacks, thus, we didn’t suffer much. 

Larry Johnson mans the oars while Tim McCarthy casts during a recent outing on the lower San Juan River.

We discovered the river flows through some spectacular country as we passed through canyons hemmed in by towering sandstone cliffs, shot through with layers of faded red and tan rock.

Overhead crows, buzzards, eagles and hawks circled and cried.

At other times we found ourselves hemmed in by thick rows of pale, green and very thorny, Russian Olive trees. Here the bugs seemed thick and the air alive with their buzzing.

As the rookie driver on board, I was constantly warned to stay away from the bank and its thorny trees.

At one point I was also scolded for letting the boat do a lazy, midstream, doughnut as I peered up at the beautiful banks of fluffy, flat bottomed clouds overhead.

Just goofing around, like a kid in an inner tube.

We then came across the idyllic, riverfront home of Abe Chavez, founder of the legendary Abes Motel and Fly Shop at Navajo Dam.

And around another corner we discovered a pretty, little, red and white trimmed, ranch house with a wide expanse of green lawn and a “for sale” sign posted out front.

That got us all buzzing.

The river continued past a pasture stocked with cattle and horses and a grove of shady cottonwoods under which sat a couple of old kitchen chairs and a forked stick stuck in the sand.

Someone’s own, backyard, fishing hole.

What a life, we all agreed.

There were spots that begged further investigation but down here you don’t drop anchor or get out of the boat for fear of trespassing on someone’s land, and maybe, getting shot at, Johnson warned us.

It’s a good policy designed to ensure good relations with the neighbors, he says.

We continue to fish and float, picking up a bruiser hidden behind a log lashed to pile of old automobile grills buried in the bank for erosion control. A dog rushes to the bank growling and barking excitedly as we reel in yet another monster brown. 

Karl Moffatt shows off a nice brown picked up in the lower stretch of the San Juan River. 

And then we’re there, in the long slow water leading up to the diversion dam, alerted to its location by the big rock in the middle of the river and an island behind it that splits the current in two.

Johnson warns that we don’t want to miss the take out hidden amongst the thick trees or we might get swept downstream where we’ll have hell to pay dragging the boat back upstream, by hand, in the extremely cold, water.

We find it and bury the nose in the sandy bank, jumping out and slapping high fives all around, it had been an excellent day on the water, with great company and even better fishing. 

We saw just one other boat with a guide and a single angler on board that whole day.

Back at Cottonwood Campground as we sit under the picnic shelter, guzzling cold beers and grilling fat t-bones, our elderly neighbor stops by to inquire about our luck that day.

I showed him the pictures and he exclaims “Where’d you get those.”

All I can do is smile and say “downstream.”


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fly Fishing the Pecos National Historical Park. Check It Out!

It’s a little piece of the Pecos River where one can find a clean, quiet, pleasant place to dabble a fly for trout this summer.

The Pecos National Historical Park’s pilot, fly-fishing program is underway for its third year, playing host to anglers seeking a quality experience while chasing trout in the river located just a short drive from Santa Fe.

This picturesque, three-mile stretch of water that runs through the national park defies the upper Pecos River’s widely held reputation among many anglers as one of the most overrun, trashed out and used up fisheries in the state.

But for a price, an angler can get away from the rowdy crowds, noisy campgrounds and extensive litter that can be found on many public stretches of the Pecos River located in the Santa Fe National Forest above the village of Pecos.

The program was started in the fall of 2008 to address public demand for access to nearly three miles of river running through about 3,300 acres of the park’s land that is still off limits, said Christine Beekman, spokesperson for the 6,610-acre park.

Since then the program has gained a following amongst a core group of regulars, she said. But while many anglers might make reservations to fish the river, quite a few also fail to show up, making it possible for walk-ins to take advantage of open slots.

The program utilizes a reservation system and divides the river into three beats, two of which are dedicated to reservations and a third which is open to walk-ins on a first-come, first-served basis. No shows’ slots are made available to walk-ins after 9:30 a.m.

Beats are randomly rotated each day to provide variety to users and each beat is limited to a total of three anglers per day. The cost is $25 for the day with a $3 park entrance fee. The $25 covers the cost of running the program and grants the user a special use permit for access to the closed portion of the park.

Fishing on the river is catch and release only with single barbless hooks and anglers must present a valid New Mexico fishing license upon check in. No pets or commercial guides are allowed and the river is off-limits if the stream flow meets or exceeds 200 cubic feet per second. 

The summer season runs through Aug. 2nd and the fall seasons begins Sept. 2nd and runs through Oct. 25th. For more particulars about making reservations and other information go online to and click on the 2010 fishing program tab. Or call the park at (505) 757-7200.

As part of the fishing program, anglers are asked to fill out a questionnaire about their experience when checking out. Then information will be used as part of the park’s evaluation of the program and plans for future use, Beekman said.

The park’s management is expected to begin taking public comment this coming winter to determine how to best use the rest of the park, including the river, she said.

The park’s management plan will be guided by the public’s right to access and the government’s need to protect the resources, Beekman said.

A recent visit to the river revealed solitude and spectacular scenery as expected but challenging fishing due to the heat.

The lengthy hike to the beginning of beat two or further on to the bottom of beat three requires some stamina while wearing waders under a blazing, hot, summer sun. It also cuts into the time available for fishing, a serious consideration during the summer months due to the limited amount of time available to fish under current rules. Anglers are restricted to fishing from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during the summer program.

A visit to the river revealed that it could have easily been fished in sneakers and shorts and that would have been a lot more comfortable while hiking in and during wading.

Suggestions on how to improve the program to better suit anglers will be entertained during upcoming public meetings and comments will also be collected online, Beekman said.

It’s possible that the river and surrounding park land could be open to the public by next spring, she said. 

And while the fishing at the Pecos National Historical Park might be a great reason to visit the park, its museum, Indian ruins, the remains of an early, Spanish church, a civil war battlefield and its Forked Lighting Ranch house are all equally worthy reasons for a visit to the park, Beekman stressed.

The park’s museum features one of the more comprehensive and detailed history of the region, while the Indian ruins feature a cool, underground kiva to hide out in on a hot summer day. 

If You Go: 

Take I-25 out of Santa Fe towards Las Vegas and get off at the Pecos/Glorieta exit at State Road 50. Drive into town and take a right at the stop sign and intersection of State Road 63. Follow for a couple of miles to the visitor center entrance. Some fishing supplies, licenses and beer available at Adelo's Store. Good burgers at the village drive-in located a couple of blocks up the road from Adelo's on the other side of town, headed towards the national forest.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A Great New Mexico Fourth of July Tradition Gets Even Better

One of New Mexico’s best Fourth of July celebrations, attending the hometown rodeo at Cimarron followed by the fireworks show at nearby Eagle Nest has gotten a whole lot better with the addition of a new public campground on the lake.

Those making a trip north to the high country lake at 8,300 feet will find 19 new camp sites with shelters, campfire rings and picnic tables in the campground at Eagle Nest Lake State Park, located off U.S. 64 on the west side of the lake.

The $10 a night, dry, camp sites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis and are expected to go fast over the holiday weekend, so plan accordingly, said Mark Sullivan, Park Ranger. Six sites available by reservation have already been snapped up.

Those who get a site will enjoy a front row treat to the village’s annual fireworks display as it erupts right over their heads. And as long lines of traffic leave the area following the display, campers can kick back and enjoy knowing they’re already home for the night.

 Those unlucky enough to not snag a spot at the state park campground can try their luck at any number of nearby private campground operators or venture across the lake into Cimarron Canyon where another 88 sites in three campgrounds exist.

And while the fireworks is a good show, the rodeo just down the road at Cimarron is a real treat for those interested in attending an authentic, old school, country rodeo including bull and bronco riding, wild cow milking and the always entertaining wild horse race.

The rodeo, one of the longest running in the country having started way back in 1923, not only provides the area’s working cowboys an opportunity to test their skills and win some money but also provides local students with scholarships from the proceeds, said Chuck Enlow, Rodeo Director of the Maverick Club which hosts the event.

The rodeo is open to anyone and draws riders from around the region as well as plenty of local riders who work the area’s many cattle ranches. Enlow’s day job is managing a herd of about 300 horses for the Philmont Scout Ranch. 

The rodeo follows a traditional parade starting at 9.a.m. along U.S. 64 through Cimarron and runs through much of the day. Visitors will find covered stands to sit under while the local Kiwanis Club serves up buffalo burgers, hot dogs, chips and soft drinks for a modest price. 

Well-behaved, leashed dogs are allowed on the rodeo grounds. A good hat, plenty of sunscreen and perhaps an umbrella is recommended for visitors. A camp chair or blanket could also come in handy if the grandstand is crowded and the only seats left are on the grass.

Eagle Nest’s Fourth of July parade begins later in the afternoon around 2.p.m. and the town is also hosting an arts and crafts fair over the holiday weekend, said Robert Curry of the Eagle nest Chamber of Commerce and manager of the local Econo Lodge.

Those attending the fireworks display will have to pay a $5 entrance fee at the state park where well behaved, leashed and supervised dogs are welcome. Responsible alcohol consumption is permitted within the park but no glass bottles are allowed. Designated drivers are encouraged and a heavy police presence is expected, said Ranger Sullivan. 

 Those visiting the state park at the lake will also find a new, “Green”, visitor center to explore. The facility employs straw bale construction, natural lighting, solar panels and a wind turbine to reduce its energy consumption to zero, according to a state parks news release about the building.

The Fourth of July celebration at Eagle Nest and Cimarron provides an important economic boost to the local, rural economy and visitors are greatly appreciated and truly welcome, many local merchants say.

If You Go:

From Santa Fe take U.S. 84/285 North to Espanola, continue straight through town on Riverside Drive and proceed on State Road 86 north to Taos. Take US 64 East to Eagle Nest and continue another 24 miles on U.S. 64 to Cimarron. 


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