Saturday, June 21, 2014

On Fishing the Rio Grande Gorge with John Nichols and Taylor Streit

For many anglers New Mexico’s Rio Grande gorge and its tumbling river is an intimidating and stingy place to fish.

Its reputation for skunking even seasoned anglers may cause some to pass it up for easier fare elsewhere.

But those who’ve managed to overcome this maddening river’s mysterious ways say the fishing can reach mystical proportions.

And perhaps no one knows that better than longtime friends, fishermen and fellow writers, Taylor Streit and John Nichols, both of Taos.

Angling authors and fishing buddies, John Nichols and Taylor Streit.
Nichols was one of those guys who could be found fishing the river in cheap sneakers and jeans with the cuffs rolled up back in the 1970’s.

Rods were made of fiberglass then, leaders from “cat-gut” and reels made by Martin.

In those days Nichols could be seen bouncing along rutted roads on the rim of Rio Grande Gorge in a low slung, four door, Chevy Impala looking for new ways down to the river.

He carried no net, used crude, nameless flies and lunched on bologna sandwiches washed down with warm Coke.

Nichols fished the late afternoons and loved hopping from one slippery boulder to another to fish the foaming pools.

He loaded his line with a duo of wet flies, “skittered” them across the surface on a short leader and “cleaned up” on a regular basis.

Nichols shows his off his "skittering" technique during a recent 
visit to the Rio Grande at the Taos Junction Bridge.
Streit in the meantime had opened a fly shop in Taos and was building a name for himself as one of the Rio Grande’s best fishing guides.

Ironically both men learned to fish the Rio Grande from legendary local angler, Charley Reynolds, but they rarely had occasion to do it together.

That’s because Streit spent his days guiding clients while Nichols was home in bed after writing all night.

But they became longtime friends after meeting at Streit’s fly shop where they often compared notes and exchanged tales.

These days Nichols, 73, doesn’t fish his beloved river much anymore. A chronic inner ear problem makes it difficult to keep his balance on the river’s tricky terrain.

But his friend Streit, 67, took him out during last year’s caddis hatch to a gentle stretch of the river near Manby Hot Springs.

They got into a few trout that day and Nichols says hopes to do it again this year too.

But more recently the two were able to get together down on the Rio Grande at Pilar where they were asked what the secret was to fishing the big river?

The hell with you, buy our books, they said.

Say what?
Streit’s guidebook “Fly Fish New Mexico,” and his instructional manual “Instinctive Fly Fishing” are essential reading for any angler.

But it’s his book “Man vs Fish” where one can read more about a rare day of day of fishing the Rio Grande with Nichols, the man whom Streit says knows more about the river than even him.

To many Nichols, 73, is best known for penning his trilogy of fictional northern New Mexico based novels, the “Milagro Beanfield War,” “The Magic Journey” and “The Nirvana Blues.”

But others might be even more inclined to know Nichols from his trilogy of memoirs, “If Mountains Die,” “The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn” and “On the Mesa.”

In those books one can gain some insight into Nichols’ world and also learn a lot of what it takes to fish the mercurial Rio Grande.

Nichols notes in “Last Beautiful Days of Autumn” that entering the gorge “is like walking into both a physical and spiritual meat grinder” where “there is no end to the fabled calamities of this mighty river.”

The Rio Grande at the bottom of Chiflo Trail
 in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area.
And with his trademark humor and irony Nichols proceeds to recount all of the things that can and will go wrong while fishing down in the Rio Grande gorge.

Busted rods, missing reels, spills and the ever-present fear of an encounter with a rattlesnake.

“You know I never did meet one during all those years,” he says now.

And while much has changed in recent years on the Rio Grande even more has remained the same, Nichols says.

“It’s still a rugged, remote, challenging river where half the battle is getting there,” he says. “That’s what I loved about it, the work involved and the triumph of surviving it.”

Nichols “skittering” technique involves the use of a short leader from which two or even three wet flies are dangling. The rig is then twitched across the top and just under the surface of the water to entice a trout to strike.

A typical wet fly employed by Nichols for use 
while "skittering" for trout on the Rio Grande.
Nichols says the technique works best in the roiling waters found among the boulder fields of the river.

One of his favorite spots is the run between Little and Big Arsenic Springs campgrounds in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro.

Nichols says the key to successfully fishing the Rio Grande is to be alert and prepared.

Always let someone know where you’re going and carry matches, a poncho, sweater and windbreaker, polarized sunglasses and water.

Other than that, pack as lightly as possible and leave the waders behind, Nichols suggests.

“Just watch your step, the basalt rock down there is very slippery when wet,” he warns. “Try not to fall in.”

Nichols says the fishing is actually pretty easy once you get down there and if the sun is off the water it can be really good.

Streit agrees with Nichols that the Rio Grande fishes best in the shade and that an angler can do better in the more remote areas of the gorge.

By simply hiking a couple miles up the canyon from either the Taos Junction Bridge at Pilar or the John Dunn Bridge at Arroyo Hondo an angler can find unspoiled water and great fishing, Streit says.

The John Dunn bridge on the Rio Grande at Arroyo Hondo
“There are still places on this river where the trout have never been caught,” says Streit. ”And we’re still finding new ways to get to them.”

The Rio Grande Gorge and its stunning scenery is now protected from most commercial development under its designation by President Barack Obama last year as a national monument.

And the long neglected campgrounds and day use areas along the river at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area near Pilar have received much needed facelifts.

The Rio Grande Gorge Visitors Center on NM 68 at Pilar 
is a great place to find more information about recreation 
and other attractions in the area.
The popular nine mile stretch of river between the Taos Junction Bridge at Pilar and County Line takeout downstream was stocked with some 30,000 catchable size rainbow trout over the course of the season last year, says Eric Frey, Sportfish Program Manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

But the upper stretches of the river between the Wild Rivers Recreation Area and John Dunn Bridge have been stocked in recent years with native cutthroat trout, Frey said.

The cutthroat plantings have produced a population that is now reaching the 14 to 16-inch range and with time could rival some of the bigger browns found in the river.

The department is working to reintroduce cutthroats back into their native habitat throughout the state and wants to provide anglers with the opportunity to catch them, Frey said.

A Rio Grande Cutthroat. Photo courtesy of Toner Mitchell of
An unintended but added benefit of stocking cutthroats into the Rio Grande is that they can now breed with the wild rainbows to produce a very colorful, hard fighting and drought tolerant fish, Frey said.

The Rio Grande is holding a lot of fish these days, Frey says.

The most recent electro-shocking survey on the river back in 2008 revealed a healthy amount of trout in the 8 mile stretch of river between La Junta and the John Dunn bridge, Frey said.

Eric Frey, Sportfish Program Manager 
for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The survey revealed about 1,400 trout per mile with twice as many browns as rainbows and some monsters in 25-inch range, Frey said.

The survey recorded catching almost three times as many fish per mile in the remote 16-mile stretch between the John Dunn and Taos Junction bridges, Frey said.

Veteran Rio Grande Fishing Guide, Streit, says the long running drought has actually improved fishing on the river.

Taylor Streit.
There’s less spring runoff carrying silt and sediment into the river so it’s running clearer more often which allows for extra fishing days.

“I’ve never seen it fish any better than it is right now,” Streit says.

Originally published in the Spring 2014 edition of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish publication "New Mexico Wildlife." 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Pecos Wilderness Offers Backcountry Adventures

Pecos Wilderness. Photo courtesy of  of
 The Pecos Wilderness offers great outdoor recreation including leisurely horseback rides, invigorating hikes, awesome fishing and secluded camping amid some of the most impressive scenery in northern New Mexico.

“A trip into the Pecos Wilderness can really take you away from it all,” says Sarah Naegele, a backcountry specialist with the Santa Fe National Forest. “We’ve got spectacular mountain lakes, awesome panoramic views and the opportunity for some real solitude.”

And there’s plenty of friendly folks willing and able to help visitors enjoy everything the Pecos Wilderness has to offer.

A good looking horse. Photo by Karl Moffatt courtesy of

Trail Rides:

A trip into the backcountry on horseback is just the ticket for those seeking an authentic western experience.

Riding high aboard a sure-footed horse is a comfortable way to enjoy the scenery while getting into the wilderness.

And Circle S Stables has been taking guests on rides into the forest and meadows of the Pecos Wilderness for over 25 years now, says Lou Storey who runs the business along with her son, Kraig.

Circle S Stables provides many services including half and full day horseback trail rides, pack-in service for campers and fully outfitted hunting, fishing and camping trips.

Anglers can enjoy good fishing in spectacular meadow settings on both the Mora or Pecos rivers and Circle S Stables can get them there with plenty of time to spend on the water, Storey says.

Hard working pack horses & mules. Photo by Mary Caperton Morton of
Storey said she’ll offer a special discounted rate this summer to readers of the Las Vegas Optic for anglers who want to fish and camp out at Mora Flats for a few days or more.

Storey said she’d be happy to take a couple of anglers and their supplies in on horseback, drop them off and then pick them up later for only $500 a head.

“That’d make for an affordable and fun vacation,” she says.

Visitors interested in horse trips and camping in other areas of the wilderness need only speak with Storey to discuss the options available.

“We’re here to make sure folks really enjoy our great outdoors and have fond, lasting memories of their visit,” Storey says.

The Pecos River. Photo courtesy of Karen Denison of
Circle S Stables is located just outside of the Pecos Wilderness boundary on Iron Gate Road north of the village of Pecos. Operations begin Memorial Day weekend and run through late October.

See Circle S Stables website at for more details or call them at (505) 757-8440.

Guided Hikes:

Some folks might just want to wander on foot through the Pecos Wilderness for the day but they need a guide to help point out the way.

That’s why the folks at Outspire are in business, to help wanderers enjoy the many wonderful hikes available in northern New Mexico, says owner Karen Denison.

Karen Denison. Photo courtesy of
The professional guides at Outspire have a special fondness for hiking into the Pecos Wilderness especially out onto Hamilton Mesa.

“Being on foot you just tend to see more,” Denison says. “Like all the wildlfowers.”

Hikers need only enthusiasm and physical ability to enjoy much what the backcountry offers including its sweeping views and refreshing environment, Denison says.

Outspire caters to its guest by providing bottled water and snacks and can make arrangement to provide box lunches too.

Outspire can provide day packs, ponchos and trekking poles too. Guides are first-aid certified also.

“All they really need is to bring a camera and let’s get out there,” she says.

Denison says all of her hikes are custom based on the customer’s desires and abilities.

Many are seeking solitude, wildlife and scenic viewing which are abundant in the Pecos Wilderness, she says.

A hiker enjoys the view found in the Pecos back country. Photo courtesy of  of
A trip out across Hamilton Mesa provides the opportunity for all and guides provide history, geology and other insights along the way.

“And it’s possible to spend a whole day on your lonesome,” she says.

A full-day outing for a couple costs a little over $300 while the pleasant memories remain free for a lifetime.

See Outspire’s website at for more information or call Denison at (505) 660-0394.

Guided Backpacking:

Sometimes a day on the trail and a night in the woods accompanied by a caring companion with an understanding ear is just what the doctor ordered, says Larry Glover of The Wild Resiliency Institute.

Larry Glover poses for a group photo from a recent wilderness retreat. Photo courtesy of  the Wild Resiliency Institute @
Glover, a Licensed Independent Social Worker (LISW) and Wilderness Therapist, uses overnight backpacking trips for people to reconnect, renew and rebuild themselves.

“My trips are geared around personal reflection and creating space and time for that self-renewal,” the former forest firefighter, river raft runner and outward bound instructor says.

It’s hiking and camping with a spiritual bent, a good time to question everything and hash it out with an experienced life coach.

You can’t beat the scenery either, Glover notes.

Photo by Karl Moffatt.Courtesy of
Glover utilizes poetry, ecology, mythology and positive psychology to connect with his clients and all camping gear and provisions are provided.
A two night camping excursion will cost about $500 although Glover says he is more than happy to work with people depending on their means.

Glover also offers a popular, annual, “Soul Renewal Wilderness Retreat” and more info including customer testimonials about it can be found on his website at Glover can be reached by telephone at 505-466-1813.

Some special rules and regulations regarding camping apply to those visiting the Pecos Wilderness but there is no back country permit required.

Contact the Pecos or Las Vegas Ranger Districts at 505- 757-6121 and 505 425-3534 respectively for more info before going.

See the “Leave No Trace” website at for the seven principles for reducing impact while enjoying the outdoors.

Originally published in the Las Vegas Optic 2014 summer guide which can be seen in its entirety at Reprinted with permission.

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