Sunday, September 23, 2012

Record Breaking, Trophy Sized Tiger Muskies at Bluewater Lake

New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) Conservation Officer, Travis Nygren, shows off one of the giant tiger muskies found at Bluewater Lake in western New Mexico.
The Tiger muskie fishing at Bluewater Lake is so good these days its drawing anglers from across the state looking to land a trophy sized fish and maybe even break the state record.

“It’s crazy out here,” says Rodney Busch, 28, of Bluewater Village who frequently fishes the lake near his home. “There’s people coming from all over, even out of state, just to catch them.”

The state record has changed hands four times in just over a year and is currently held by Marcos Mata of Albuquerque after he snared a monstrous 50.5-inch, 38-pound, 2-ounce muskie at Bluewater Lake in July using a two-inch, silver, artificial minnow.
Bluewater Lake as seen from an overlook in the state park high above the water.  
Prior to Mata’s catch the record was held by a guy from Edgewood who had taken it from a Truth or Consequences fisherman who had snagged it from an Albuquerque angler, according to state Department of Game and Fish records.

All took their record catch from Bluewater Lake in western New Mexico.

The International Game Fish Association’s North American record is for a 51-pound, 3-ounce tiger muskie caught at Lac Vieux-Desert, Mich. caught in 1919.

At the rate record catches are being recorded at Bluewater Lake someone could possibly take the national record too.

Tiger Muskie records are measured by weight not length.

Tiger muskies were planted in Bluewater and Quemado lakes back in 2003 by the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) to get handle on a population explosion of unwanted white sucker and gold fish.

These undesirable “trash” fish compete for limited resources with “sport” fish such as trout and in both lakes they had grown out of control.
NMDGF Conservation Officer,Travis Nygren, holds up one of the many white sucker fish found in Bluewater lake that has prompted fishery managers to stock predatory tiger muskies in an effort to control their numbers. 
Tiger muskies which are a sterile hybrid cross between a muskie and a pike can be raised in hatcheries and then stocked in lakes for use in controlling undesirable fish populations.

Tiger muskies are long, sleek predators armed with vicious teeth that tend to grow fast and big. They’ve been stocked in both lakes every other year since 2003, according to NMDGF coldwater fisheries biologist, Richard Hansen.

The tiger muskies have done such a good job in reducing the undesirable fish populations at both lakes that anglers can now catch and keep a single trophy tiger muskie over 40-inches long from either lake.

And now anglers who once sought trout at these two lakes are learning to fish for these monsters until the trout come back.

During a recent September survey of Bluewater Lake by Hansen he found the tiger muskie population to be thriving but white sucker and goldfish still present.
Richard Hansen, NMDGF Coldwater Fisheries Biologist, shows off one of the younger  tiger muskies caught at Bluewater Lake during a recent population survey.
The biggest Tiger muskie netted during the survey was a 26-pounder measuring about 43-inches long and many more tiger muskies in the 20 and 30-inch range were also found.

Hansen said that not enough trout were located during the survey to make a determination about their status.

He noted that perhaps due to drought related low water levels and higher water temperatures that perhaps they were hiding out in the deeper water.

The NMDGF crew spent much of its time working just offshore in shallower water using gill nets and electro-shocking equipment.

But a similar survey this spring revealed a good sampling of trout, Hansen said and he will continue to evaluate the situation to determine how to proceed with any future trout stocking plans.

Hansen noted that trout appear to be coexisting well with tiger muskies in Quemado Lake and that methods used there to maintain the stocked trout population might work at Bluewater too.

In the meantime the lake continues to draw anglers from all over for a chance to catch one of the prehistoric looking fish.
People aren't the only ones fishing at Bluewater Lake as evidenced by the Osprey waiting in a tree on the shoreline for a chance to catch a meal.
Anglers wishing to fish for tiger muskies should be aware of some special equipment needed to do so successfully, according to Matt Pelletier, president of the 65-member New Mexico Muskies Inc., a local chapter of the national organization formed in 2008.

Anglers will need at least a seven foot long, heavyweight rod capable of handling at least a 20-weight line and a one-ounce lure with an open face spinning or bait casting reel.

Wire leaders are recommended and typical lures would include jerk baits that resemble goldfish, suckers and trout, Pelletier says.

Anglers should be equipped with a pair of long, needle nose pliers for dislodging hooks. They should also take along a pair of heavy nippers for cutting hooks off if needed and a pair of jaw spreaders to open the fish’s mouth and get at any embedded hooks.

Anglers should have a very large net or preferably, a sling net, in which the fish can be cradled in the water which is necessary for handling the fish properly without harming it or the angler.

“We practice and preach catch and release to conserve the resource,” Pelletier says.

Those fishing for tiger muskies need to practice patience and persistence as the fish feed on a limited schedule and anglers need to have their lures in the water when they’re ready to feed, Pelletier says.
Frequent Bluewater Lake angler, Rodney Busch, says a simple white diving lure like this beat up bomber has worked well for him at attracting strikes from tiger muskies.
Tiger muskies have a slow metabolism and after a good sized meal may not eat again for some time which accounts for their sporadic feeding behavior, he says.

The key to attracting a strike from a tiger muskie is to capitalize on its opportunistic, predatory instinct with jerks and motion of the lure that imitate a wounded or struggling prey, Pelletier said.

For more information about fishing for tiger muskies check out the club’s website at

For anglers looking to make the record book check out NMDGF’s website at for rules, regulations and record applications.

On the way out to Bluewater Lake in west central New Mexico take time to check out the many attractions to be found along old Route 66 such as the many classic cars available at Oscars Auto Sales near Grants. 
If You Go: Take I-25 south to I-40 and then head west to just past Grants. Take NM 412 at the Prewitt exit and follow to the lake.

This story also appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican and can be seen at

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Don Wolfley: Last of the Old School Fishing Guides at Heron Lake

It’s a hazy summer morning at Heron Lake and fishing guide Don Wolfley is backing his 24-foot pontoon boat into the water for a day of deep sea fishing - New Mexico style!

“Remember you’ve got to stay in contact with them,” he says of the deep running salmon we hope to hook into this day. “If you can’t feel, then reel. Don’t stop reeling.”

Wolfley, 67, is heading into his 17th year of guiding on Heron Lake in northern New Mexico and is one of the last of the “old school” breed of fishing guides.
“I’m the last one here,” he says of the deep, cold, lake with its plankton rich green waters where anglers have flocked for years to chase tasty salmon and catch giant lake trout. “There once used to be seven of us.”

Wolfley guides for Stone House Lodge located on the lake and his own clients through Heron Lake Guide Service.

Wolfley, a self described laid back and unassuming guy, says he still gets a big kick out of fishing after all these years and will continue guiding as long as he still does.

“I just take it a season at a time,” he says.

Wolfley says fishing for the landlocked salmon stocked in Heron Lake by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is a little different than some anglers might expect.
A typical Heron Lake salmon.
The silvery fish found at Heron Lake typically range in size from 12 to 20 inches with the average catch being about 15 inches.

They have a soft mouth and can be easily lost if an angler fights them too hard.

“They can be a tough fish to catch,” he says. “They require finesse and a light touch.”

Salmon tend to run in schools and can best be found by using a boat outfitted with a sonar fish finder which also determines the quarry’s depth.

Once the fish are located, Wolfley then uses a set of downriggers to take his fishing line and lures down to the best depth to catch them.

Wolfley’s downriggers incorporate a heavy weight attached to a metal line wound upon an electrically operated winch with a depth counter.

A trolling rod and reel is mounted into a nearby holder and its line is lightly attached by a pressure sensitive clip to the downrigger.
A downrigger and fishing line ready to be to be deployed.
The downrigger in then lowered into the water where it drags the fishing line and lure down to the desired depth.

Attached to the fishing line just above a lure baited with Wolfley’s specially scented corn is a flashy metal spoon designed to catch the salmon’s attention as the rig runs through the water.
Then as the boat idles along slowly, it’s time to watch for a strike indicated by a good twitch and deep bend in the rod as a fish is hooked.

Then comes the tough part: Reeling in quickly while lifting the rod tip to unsnap the downrigger clip from the fishing line.

After that the rod should be dropped back down towards the water’s surface and the line reeled in to establish contact with the fish.

If a salmon is on the line, it will soon be felt tugging, then the angler can gently reel it in, stopping if the fish starts to run and resuming when it doesn’t.

Lastly as the salmon comes into view the angler needs to gently coax it to the surface.

Then with a lift of the rod the fish should break the surface, where Wolfley can get his net under it.

“But sometimes you can lose one there at the end,” Wolfley says. “And that’s just fishing.”

But if successful, the angler will get a high five from Wolfley and can keep going until filling his or her limit of five fish for the day.

Wolfley cleans and filets all of his client’s fish and packages them to be taken home to cook.

And just like the salmon found at the supermarket, the fish from Heron Lake possess a bright orange color and when properly dressed contain few if any bones to deal with.

Salmon filets can be breaded and fried, broiled or grilled.  It’s all good.
And fish fresh from the water and caught with your own hand seem to be even more flavorful, Wolfley notes.

Wolfley, a trim and fit man who once used to run long distance marathons because it gave him time to think, is a retired Albuquerque Public Schools administrator with a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico (UNM).

Wolfley’s wife, Norma, is also retired from the Albuquerque Public Schools where she taught for more than 30 years.

The couple has a daughter, Linda, who is pursuing a medical degree at UNM.

Wolfley says the two love to fish and that his wife is better at it than he.

“Oh, she’s good, alright,” he says as he describes the big, 17-pound lake trout she once caught in Heron Lake or the giant 21-inch salmon she once reeled in from the lake’s depths.
During the summer the couple share a modest home nestled on a ridge overlooking El Vado Lake just downstream of Heron Lake on the Chama River.

“It’s the best of both worlds, having the two lakes,” Wolfley says. “And it’s quiet and peaceful.”

Anglers can fish for big lake trout with Wolfley during the early months of the year in March, April and May and then sign on for salmon fishing during the summer and fall.

Wolfley usually calls it quits for the season around the beginning of October and then spends his winter at his second home in Albuquerque.

And while a day on the lake with Wolfley can be exciting when the fish are on, it can be relaxing, too, especially when good conversation fills the void between strikes.
Wolfley hails originally from the backwoods of Pennsylvania where he grew up fishing with his brother, Howard, on the lakes, rivers and streams around their boyhood home of Enola.

His father, Fulton, was a railroad worker and his mother, Mary, a homemaker.

“It’s kind of funny because my dad had these old bamboo flyfishing rods that we used to use like you would a cane pole,” Wolfley says. “Just to dangle a worm in the water.”

Today vintage bamboo fly rods are considered highly valued antiques by many fly fishing purists.

And while Wolfley has fly fished too, he still thinks that pound for pound the earth worm is the most effective tool for catching fish.

“I guess I’m just old school that way,” he says.
An Osprey flies away after snatching a fish from the water at Heron Lake.
It was in the early 1960s that Wolfley moved out West like his brother did before him and was accepted at UNM.

“It was a bit of geographic culture shock,” Wolfley says of the move. “At first I couldn’t get over the scarcity of grass and trees and there was all this blowing dust. But I always did like Mexican food, so it kind of grew on me.”

And nowadays you can’t get Wolfley to stop singing the praises of his adopted home state, especially the scenic mountain vistas and sparkling waters found at Heron and El Vado Lakes.

If You Go: From Santa Fe take US84/285 north to Espanola. Cross the river and stay on US84 through Abiquiu and on north towards Chama. After passing the village of Los Ojos take the turnoff to Heron Lake on NM 95.

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