Thursday, February 29, 2024

Spring fishing on the San Juan River - Tips and Tricks

The author shows off a standard issue San Juan rainbow trout during a spring outing on the river. 

Spring fishing on the San Juan River means dry fly action and plenty of it so box up the nymphs, break out the flies and get after it.

Many a dry fly angler can recall times on the San Juan when they’ve seen Baetis mayflies hatching, trout rising and surrounding anglers still hopelessly dredging nymphs through the water.

Don’t be one of those yahoos! Learn to cast a dry fly and have some serious fun on New Mexico’s premier, trophy class trout stream.

Here’s some time proven tips and tricks for spring dry fly fishing on the San Juan river below Navajo Dam in northwestern New Mexico.

First of all be prepared for the weather. The months of March and April can bring some of the worst weather of the year with wind, rain, and even heavy, wet snow storms.

Sure, there’ll be lots of glorious days when it’s sunny and warm but there’ll also be others when the snow’s blowing sideways, so just be prepared before going out there.

And keep in mind that when it’s overcast, sprinkling or snowing the fishing is usually great on the San Juan because that’s when the Baetis usually hatch and the trout rise.

Before heading out check with a local fly shop to see if the lake is turning over and discoloring the water, if it is your chances of catching a baetis hatch might be greatly reduced. 

A beautiful spring day on the San Juan River under threatening clouds sweeping in from southern Colorado.

Here's one of the more time honored tips for fishing with dry flies on the San Juan.

If you're having a hard time seeing your fly on the water just tie on a larger fly such as a #16 elk hair caddis or parachute Adams. Then attach the target fly, usually a 22, 24 or 26 parachute Adams or any number of Baetis imitators, to the back end with a shorter length of tippet. The bigger fly is easier to see and serves as a strike indicator when the target fly is taken. In many cases fish will take the larger fly too. Anglers usually don't see a lot of Caddis coming off on the waters of the San Juan but it is a fly that produces strikes time and time again for some reason.

Another dry fly fishing trick is learning to tell the difference between a rising fish feeding off the surface and those feeding just below it.

If you see a trout’s snout break the surface then it’s usually sipping mayflies fluttering around on top of the water. When only the tail or the fin can be seen swirling around just below the surface then it’s probably feeding on emerging insects.

To catch fish feeding just below the surface tie an emerger wet fly on a short piece of tippet and attach it to the back end of your dry fly. Wet the length of the tippet so it'll will sink and the emerger will ride just below the surface. 

Remember to cast this rig just above a rising fish and arrange it so that the fly passes over the intended spot rather than the leader. Wait for the dry fly to stop, twitch or disappear below the surface and then gently set the hook. 

To catch fish feeding a little deeper cut a foot long piece of 6x tippet in half and then tie it back together using a blood or surgeons knot. Attach the tippet to the back end of large, durable, high floating fly like a #10 or # 12 stimulator. Next, slide a #9 split shot down the tippet to the knot which will keep it from descending any further and finally, attach the target fly, typically a grey #22 RS2 Baetis emerger, to the bottom.

Dry fliers also can consider clipping the hackle on the bottom of those strike indicator flies so they float flatter on the water. 

Another trick to successful dry fly fishing is to recognize and avoid the angling condition known as "premature evacuation." That’s what happens when an angler gets so excited about seeing a trout take their fly that they pull it right out of its mouth.

Relax and let the fish take the fly before setting the hook with a gentle rise of the rod tip.

And while anglers should always wear polarized sun glasses to protect their eyes and reduce glare off the water sometimes it’s even more important to remember to move and put the sun at your back to reduce glare.

A pair of good polarized sunglasses and changing positions in relation to the sun  is essential to combating glare and improving dry fly fishing sucess.

Nowhere is that more evident than in places like the San Juan’s lower flats where by simply moving to the other side of a run takes the glare off the water and gives an angler a better look at rising fish and a floating fly.

And lastly, dry fly anglers should never venture out onto the San Juan during dry fly seasons without at least a handful of #22, 24 and 26 Parachute Adams dry flies and a bottle of desiccant to keep them riding high and catching fish.

An Adams dry fly can catch just about anything when a hatch is on.

For more detailed info about fishing conditions on the San Juan river check in at one of the fly shops found in the village of Navajo Dam. They should be able to tell you if and when the hatches have been occurring. In the meantime while you're waiting for those risers tie on a standard San Juan nymphing rig like a # 18 red larva with a #22 grey midge trailing off the bottom. Add a bit of weight and a strike indicator and stay busy till the Baetis come off.

Now here’s some Tips and Tricks for spring camping on the San Juan River.

Mud and Plenty of It:

Spring can be the wettest time of year on the San Juan River with snowpack melting and rains turning local, dirt roads into incredibly slick and in some cases, impassable mud bogs.

Even the short stretch of dirt road leading to Cottonwood Campground can be a nightmare to navigate under the worst of conditions and those camping at the end of that same road in Simon Canyon could end up stuck there for the duration.

So those who intend to camp on the San Juan need keep an eye on the weather and be prepared to move on, in a hurry, if need be. Some rains may last an afternoon and do little damage but a heavy, overnight, drenching could spell trouble especially for those camping in more remote areas.

Be forewarned, four wheel drive is great stuff but without chains and aggressive off-road tires like the local oil and gas guys have, it may not be enough to deal with what some of these dirt roads serve up when muddy.

That being said, camping on the San Juan in the spring can be great if the weather cooperates just remember to button up your tent upon leaving for the day, just in case. And cover your firewood too.

Food and Coolers:

Remember that with the onset of daylight savings time the days on the river grow longer and temperatures increase considerably, that means the fishing starts earlier too. So anglers might want to consider adopting a cooking and feeding plan that accommodates their fishing schedule.

Quick and easy foods such as hard boiled eggs, cheese sticks, apples, trail bars, beef jerky, peanuts and trail mix make for good fuel while on the river and can be easily eaten while on the move early in the day.

But by midday one might want to return to their vehicle or camp and relax while whipping up a real meal and waiting for the last half of the day and early evening to commence.

There are several nice, shady spots along the river at the Cottonwood Campground day use area where one can enjoy a leisurely meal and perhaps take a nap before getting back to fishing.

Towering cottonwood trees provide great shade in several spots along the San Juan River.

By bringing a small, portable gas grill or stove and and a good cast iron skillet one can make short work of grilling burgers, chicken or pork which when folded into a tortilla with a dab of refried beans, several slices of avocado, tomato, onion and some green chile or salsa, rivals anything the local restaurants can whip up and is a hell of lot cheaper.

Use doubled up, zip-lock bags when storing food in the cooler to keep them from getting wet or leaking into your ice.

Keeping coolers iced up becomes an issue with the coming of spring too so try to keep them out of direct sunlight, anticipate the track of the sun and park accordingly. Crack your vehicle windows to let out the buildup of heat and use sun shades to cover the windows.

Consider keeping the cooler wrapped up in a spare blanket or sleeping bag for added insulation and don’t dump out the cold water in the bottom of the cooler until absolutely necessary. It’s what’s holding in the cold.

The Sun and Lots of It:

Don’t go out on the river without sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, a good hat and a raincoat or poncho. Bring and wear a broad brimmed hat with a chin strap to retain it in the wind. Be prepared for changing weather conditions including wind and rain which can reduce core temperatures quickly. Carry an emergency space blanket in your vest.

Water and Lots of It:

Stay hydrated. Don’t venture out onto the river for any length of time without at least a couple of liters of water. Carry a light weight, water filter if need be but most importantly drink plenty of water and do it before you become thirsty. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake as they contribute to dehydration.


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Visit the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Lake for winter trout fishing

The Rio Chama below Abiquiu Lake.

Every winter it seems there’s a spell of warm sunny days in northern New Mexico where anglers just have to get out and go fishing.

And on days like that they may as well just head straight for the Rio Chama below the dam at Abiquiu Lake

Long considered a winter fishery the river is regularly stocked with trout by the state Department of Game and Fish.

The river boasts about five miles of public access from the base of the dam downstream to just outside the village of Barranca near Abiquiu.

And in recent years about two miles of river directly below the dam received habitat improvements and other upgrades that have significantly improved fishing and recreation conditions.

The river channel has been narrowed, deepened and boulders were installed to improve the fishing habitat.

The river is designated special trout water with a bag limit of two from the bridge crossing the river on U.S. Highway 84 at Abiquiu for about 7 miles upstream to the base of Abiquiu Dam. Standard bait and lures along with typical fly fishing fare works well on the many stocked rainbow trout found here. 

The author with a stocked rainbow trout.

But for some the beauty of this place isn’t so much the fishing as it is the scenery. This is Georgia O’Keeffe  country with plenty of colorful cliffs, snow covered hillsides and expansive blue skies to admire.

Along the river just below the dam visitors will find a parking and picnic area with several shelters and a sturdy vault toilet. Further downstream several other picnic and parking areas are carved out by the riverside. The surrounding land is rugged and remote and well suited for hiking. 

A day use area with picnic tables, shelters, parking and a vault toilet welcomes visitors to the recreational area.

After a few miles though the river and its dirt road part ways only to reconnect again on the other side of a steep mountain.

Two track trails crisscross the area with most leading into the thick brush and dense cottonwood stands found along the riverside. 

Those with the motive and means can now continue downstream and enjoy a whole’nother stretch of river, one where the hatchery truck doesn’t visit and the fish are fewer and farther between. The resident brown trout here are decidedly harder to find and catch than their upstream kin.

An angler tries his luck in one of the fishing holes found further downstream from the dam. 

The countryside here is vast, remote and worthy of exploration but the road eventually grows rutted and mean as it squeezes through a narrow, rocky canyon marking the end of the public land.

Emerging on the other side the road turns back to pavement and winds away from the river through the rural village of Barranca.  A last ditch shot at fishing lies ahead where a roadside/riverside picnic area has been carved out just before reaching the highway at Abiquiu.

The Rio Chama with Cerrito Blanco in the background at Abiquiu N.M.

















Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Visit Trinity Site for a Real Blast from the Past!

The memorial obelisk at ground zero.
The Army expects bigger crowds and longer waits for the public to visit the Trinity Site on White Sands Missile Range this fall due to the recent release of the movie “Oppenheimer.”  

The remote military base in the New Mexico desert was the test site for the world’s first explosion of an atom bomb and is opened to the public twice a year.

“Due to the release of the movie, “Oppenheimer” in July, we are expecting a larger than normal crowd at the 21 October open house,” according to an alert posted on the Army’s Trinity Site web page. “You may experience wait times of up to two hours getting onto the site. If you are not one of the first 5,000 visitors, you might not get through the gate prior to its’ closure at 2 p.m.” 

Sweet duty for this group of soldiers who said they enjoyed working with the public.
During its April open house the Army saw about 3,900 visitors and it took just over an hour for the author’s vehicle to slowly make its way up to and through the manned checkpoint to gain entrance to the site.  

We arrived at around 9:30 a.m. after spending the night at the Days Inn in nearby Socorro where Trinity Site visitors will need to book a room well in advance if they want to stay in town. 

Those who prefer to camp out can find some sites just outside of San Antonio at the Riverine Park off U.S. 380 in the Bosque alongside the irrigation canal. We observed others camped out on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land on the road leading to the Stallion Gate on White Sands Missile Range.

Primitive campsites at Riverine Park off U.S. 380 outside of San Antonio.
Travel to the site from Las Cruces or Albuqueque takes a couple of hours and visitors can only gain entrance through the Stallion Gate on N.M. 525 located off U.S. 380 between San Antonio and Carrizozo. The gate opens at 8 a.m. ID is required. No firearms or marijuana allowed. The call of nature can be strong when waiting in line. Prepare accordingly. See the site's website for more info.

Trinity Site is where the first atomic bomb was tested at 5:29:45 a.m. Mountain War Time on July 16, 1945. The 19-kiloton explosion not only led to a quick end to the war in the Pacific but also ushered the world into the atomic age. All life on Earth has been touched by the event, which took place here, according to a brochure on the Trinity Site's webpages

The ranch house where it all came together.
The 51,500-acre area was declared a national historic landmark in 1975. The landmark includes base camp, where the scientists and support group lived; ground zero, where the bomb was placed for the explosion; and the Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core to the bomb was assembled. Visitors to a Trinity Site Open House are given the opportunity to visit ground zero and the ranch house. In addition, one of the old instrumentation bunkers is visible beside the road just west of ground zero. 

Socorro's plaza area is well worth exploring.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

Autumn is a great time to take a ride into New Mexico’s high country to see the trees changing colors from aboard one of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad’s antique trains.

The railroad’s steam locomotives chug along over 64 miles of narrow gauge track spanning the mountains between Chama, N.M., and Antonito, Colo., crossing both state’s borders 11 times.

As the trains wends its way up and over 10,000-foot high Cumbres Pass at a top speed of 12 miles-per-hour, passengers have plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. 

The passing countryside includes wide meadows of native grasses bordered by thick stands of aspen and pines trees through which the Los Pinos River meanders. Adventurous anglers seeking a bucket list experience can arrange to be dropped off and picked up later at a predetermined spot along the route.

Passengers can book passage aboard the train’s antique coach, parlor, or deluxe cars, which offer varying degrees of services and amenities. Any passenger can ride out on the open air car where exposure to the elements provides a heightened experience.

And with stations on both ends of the line in either Chama, N.M. or Antonito, Colo., passengers can plan their adventure from either side of the mountains.

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad depot at Antonito, Colo.

Just make sure you remember from which station you’re departing before you hit the road. 

During a recent autumn outing to catch the train we were cruising up U.S. 285 in remote northern New Mexico, about half way to Colorado, when it suddenly dawned on us that we were on the wrong side of the mountains. Out of habit we had taken the turnoff just north of Española where U.S. 84/285 splits because that’s the highway we usually take to go up to Colorado.

But today we were supposed to be on the other side of the Tusas Mountains, headed up U.S. 84 through Chama to catch the midday train at Cumbres Pass. Instead we were cutting through miles of empty sage, spruce and piñon studded countryside headed for Antonito in southern Colorado.

We got lucky though as we were just coming up to the intersection at Tres Piedras where we could take U.S. 64 over the mountains back to Chama. It was a shame we had to hurry because the fall scenery along this highway was at its peak and screaming for us to stop and take photographs.

We hustled to make the train and passed it just as we motoring up the mountain to Cumbres Pass station. The remote mountaintop station in the national forest sits at a jumping off point for Continental Divide Trail hikers and boasts primitive camp sites amid great scenic views.

Once on board we found our assigned seats and soon enjoyed the rhythmic rocking of the train, the clattering of the tracks and the warm sun and gentle breezes flowing through our open windows.

Wren Propp and Karl Moffatt enjoy a recent autumn ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Passing through dark tunnels, creeping along the edge of steep canyons and crossing over towering trestle bridges, the train marked its passage with the hoot and wail of its haunting steam whistle.

Arriving at Osier Station high in the mountains we were treated to a full blown buffet lunch inside the sprawling cafeteria.

The menu included green or red chile enchiladas, grilled chicken and barbecue pork, pinto beans, roasted potatoes, salads, coleslaw, cornbread, dinner rolls, tortillas, peach cobbler and other desserts.

Back onboard the train the bar car was serving up Coors tall boys and other adult beverages during the return trip. When we got back to Cumbres Pass I  surreptitiously stayed on board while my wife got off and picked me up later at the end of the line in Chama.

During the return trip I had the pleasure of hanging out between the cars with a young conductor who told me how much he loved his job but didn’t know if he could still continue doing it every summer now that he was finally graduating from college back in Oklahoma. He would soon be starting his teaching career and had a girlfriend back there too.

Boy, this poor guy sure seemed conflicted so I offered him my best advice about jobs and women, noting how both were in great supply compared to a fun gig like working on the railroad. I wished him the best of luck in getting his priorities straight as we rolled into Chama and parted ways.

Several months later I was watching the local news when they aired a story about the train featuring the same conductor. There he was telling the reporter how he was planning to be a teacher that winter but no matter what would be back on the railroad every summer after that for as long as they would have him.

Smart kid that conductor.
Visit the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad's website at for more information.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Fort Sumner & Bosque Redondo - Small Town Charm Amid a Violent Past

By Wren Propp

Serious events of more than 150 years ago play a major role in the lifeblood of Fort Sumner, home to the Bosque Redondo Memorial and Billy the Kid's gravesite. But visitors also can enjoy fishing, birding, camping, and even old fashioned soda fountain while taking in all that history.

On one hand visitors may come to see the gravesite of Billy the Kid, a Lincoln County War character whose mythologized youth (he was a starving orphan) and homicidal bravado usually overshadows the bloody reasons for the war itself. There’s a private museum and references throughout town referring to the Kid who was finally hunted down and killed here by Sheriff Pat Garrett back in 1881. 

Then on the other hand, there's the memorial and education center dedicated to the sorrow and survival of two Indian tribes. The center recalls the suffering of the Diné (Navajo) after thousands of them were forcibly and murderously marched by the U.S. Army from their homeland in northwestern New Mexico to imprisonment at Fort Sumner, on the far eastern side of the territory. The forced marches came to be known as The Long Walk. The Diné were joined at "the Fort" by other prisoners, the Ndé (Mescalero Apache) from southern New Mexico.

You may think “museum” as you approach the Bosque Redondo Memorial but it really isn't.

It's a state sponsored historical site, an international site of consciousness, intended to raise awareness of the horrific treatment the two native groups experienced, and some survived, in the 1860s. Inside visitors will find art, historical documents and artifacts, interpretive signs and other displays that tell their story. Visitors also will find thoughtfully appointed quiet areas throughout the memorial where guests can privately reflect upon what they've learned during their visit.

The Bosque Redondo Memorial marks the place “where misery laid down its head every night.” Thousands of people were held against their will, suffering starvation, exploitation, cultural dismemberment and often, death.

The ultimate triumph of both the Diné and the Ndé over their captors is so remarkable, and historically significant, it's surprising that no one’s made a dramatic movie about it (yet) although there is a documentary film from 2009.

Bosque Redondo was the site of the signing of the 1868 Treaty between the U.S. and the Diné, a document that guides the relationship between the tribe and the federal government today. The Ndé also signed a treaty, albeit after they left Fort Sumner.

The impetus of the current memorial came from a 1990 letter signed by several Diné high school students who called out for more recognition of their people’s suffering and survival at the Bosque Redondo site. 

The students had toured a small museum near the site of the old fort and were stunned that the deadly imprisonment of their ancestors, and the signing of the 1868 Treaty, were mere footnotes beside robust histories of Billy the Kid and the U.S. Army. You can read the letter that compelled the state to build the memorial while visiting the site or on the memorial’s website.

The Kid’s gravestone, the Bosque Redondo Memorial and another popular local attraction, Bosque Redondo Lake, are found about six miles southeast of the town of Fort Sumner in an area surrounded by family farms and ranches where visitors can see sheep, cattle, goats and horses grazing contently.

 Campers and day visitors can enjoy Bosque Redondo Lake and its camp sites, bird watching, fishing and hiking and biking trails. The Pecos River flows nearby in wet years, feeding the area’s wealth of ponds and lakes. The area also features Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa State Parks where visitors can enjoy some great fishing for walleye, bass, catfish and trout. Reservations for overnight camping at these parks can be made through the New Mexico State Park’s website. 

In addition to the Bosque Redondo Memorial visitors can also visit a private museum dedicated to Billy the Kid as well as his grave site. The Billy the Kid Museum also has an RV park if camping at one of the area lakes is not available.

Back in town visitors might enjoy stopping in at Addison’s Drug Store where an art deco-style soda fountain is still in operation. Kept in working order since the 1940s, its shiny blue and chrome décor will charm you while you sip a soda or spoon up a thick shake. Booths in the back harbor friendly locals who will tell you exactly how to find Billy the Kid's grave.

Dave’s Grocery, a family owned market that any small town “west of the Pecos” would be happy to have, featured fresh vegetables, ground beef and a separate section for hardware. During our recent visit the male clerks were dressed in jeans and button down shirts and happily serving a steady stream of little kids and their mommas, retirees and tourists. There's also a couple of cannabis stores in town, a shop selling locally produced honey, drive-in burger and and ice cream joint and a very busy NAPA auto parts store. 

There’s also two substantial convenience stores in town including an Allsup's, known throughout New Mexico for their deep fried chimichangas and burritos.  We found the service during our visit refreshingly friendly in these post-Covid times, with many clerks offering friendly greetings and good humor. In fact, everyone we encountered during our visit throughout Fort Sumner, from the ladies at Addison’s soda fountain to the folks at the Bosque Redondo Memorial, were warm and greeted us politely. 

For non-campers, there’s plenty of hotel rooms at several different establishments in town. During our visit we stayed at the Super 8, which featured huge photographic prints of Shiprock, Tse Bit’a’ i, or the "rock with wings,” an iconic volcanic formation near the Four Corners area, and other images tied to the Diné homeland.

And around town some empty storefront windows are still decorated with advertisements for the 2018,  150th anniversary of the signing of the 1868 Treaty that set the Indians free and commemorated at the memorial and throughout Fort Sumner.

Fort Sumner's small town charm and vibrancy speaks of a promising future and its recognition and acceptance of its violent and sobering past does too. 

 The author is a former Farmington Daily Times reporter who along with fellow reporter, Debi Tracy Olsen, earned an E.H. Shaffer Award for Journalism for their series documenting The Long Walk in the early 1990s. They visited the memorial together during this trip. 

Things to do and see around Fort Sumner, NM:

·       Bosque Redondo Memorial – open Thursdays through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $7 adult; children enter for free; Museums of New Mexico Cultural Pass accepted.

      Billy the Kid’s grave site

      Billy the Kid Museum – Open Monday through Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Adults $5; Seniors $4; Children 7 to 15, $3, and under 6, free. Closed some holidays and first two weeks of the year.

Bosque Redondo Lake Park -- Well-kept day and overnight spots at this small lake with lots of bird life. No entrance fee observed.

Sumner State Lake Park -- reservations needed for camp sites.

Santa Rosa Lake State Park . Several non-reservation camping spots available.

Popular Posts