Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Discover Elephant Butte Again

Elephant Butte Lake is back on the rise due to above average snow pack this winter and water sports enthusiasts should be a whole lot happier because of it.

“They’re going to have a fun time at the Butte this summer,” says Wayne Treers, hydraulic engineer for the federal Bureau of Reclamation in El Paso. “Recreational opportunities should be a whole lot better this year.”

Spring runoff accounts for about 70 percent of the reservoir’s annual storage and is flowing at about 170 percent of normal right now, Treers says.

The “Butte” hasn’t seen flows like that in ten years and has suffered through an extended drought in recent years which reduced its water supply to a low of 4 percent of its 2 million acre foot storage capacity in 2004.

But this year’s high spring runoff is expected to boost storage back up to about 40 percent of capacity which is about normal based on long-term averages, Treers says.

Treers says the lake should gain about 22 feet of elevation where it’s measured at the dam and see its surface area expand from about 13,000 acres to more than 18,000 acres.

And that means a lot more water to play in for those who boat, fish, swim and camp at the popular desert lake located about 200 miles south of Santa Fe.

“It’s time to come down and play,” says longtime Elephant Butte fishing guide Jr. McManus. “We should have a real good spawn this year and the fish will have plenty of cover to hide in.”

Lakeside areas exposed by low water conditions have sprouted plenty of vegetation over the last few years which will provide great hiding spots for bass when the lake rises again.

That’s good news for those who want to get in on some of the action from the bank says McManus, 60, who operates Desert Bass guide service, is a frequent bass tournament participant and is also an exclusive sponsor of Eagle Claw fishing tackle.

McManus says fishing is already good at the lake this spring and he offers a few tips for those who want to visit before the crowds and the heat settle in.

First, stay abreast of published fishing reports from the lake to determine if, where and when the fish are biting, he notes.

Water temperatures below 55 degrees will limit fish activity so avoid fishing on cool, windy days or when a cold front is moving through, he says.

When you do catch a nice day, try fishing shallower areas that heat up quickly and those with cover such as submerged trees and shrubs that bass like to hide in.McManus says anyone with a fishing rod can hook up with plenty of bass using live bait like minnows and worms.

“They’re the best baits,” he says.

McManus says a typical bait rig can be tied to a 10-lb test line with a weight on the bottom to take it down and the bait dangling off the line about 18-inches up from that.

Let the bait sit and maybe twitch it every once in a while to generate some interest. Try different areas and watch the rod tip for action.

But spinners and crank baits also work well in bringing in the bass too, he says.
Cast crank baits and spinners into promising areas and retrieve at a moderate speed, stopping every so often or changing speed to attract attention.

McManus urges anglers to practice catch and release fishing at the Butte so others may also enjoy the angling experience.

Never handle a fish with dry hands as it can strip them of their protective coating. Support fish by the jaw and belly while gently removing hooks. Beware of the fishes’ spines on the back and near the gills as these can inflict painful stab wounds.Return fish to the water as quickly as possible.

For more information about bass fishing visit www.bassresource.com.

McManus says he expects bass fishing at Elephant Butte to be whole lot better in the very near future due to the addition of a new, warm water fish-rearing facility at the state Department of Game and Fish’s Santa Rose fish hatchery.

The first-of-its-kind facility will produce bass and other warm water sporting fish for transplant into the state’s warm water fisheries such as Elephant Butte.

McManus said he had a chance last year to lobby Gov. Bill Richardson for the facility while taking him fishing during videotaping of a Wild New Mexico television show on the lake.McManus subsequently was invited to attend the ground breaking of the facility this spring and he is proud to display his gold painted shovel at his family restaurant, Casa Taco, in Elephant Butte.

McManus says previous state stocking efforts at Elephant Butte typically involved small fry that have a much lower survival rate than the larger 2- to 5-inch juveniles expected to be produced at the new warm water hatchery.

McManus said he expects the larger hatchery fish to really increase the lake’s bass population and its draw as a premier, bass fishing tournament site.

“From an economic standpoint, we can’t lose,” he says.

In the meantime, those seeking to get in some time on the beach need only head south to the Butte this spring where camping is allowed along much of the lake’s shoreline, says Phillip Rael of Elephant Butte Lake State Park which oversees most of the accessible areas of the lake’s western shoreline.

Visitors heading south to the lake can jump off Interstate 25 at exit 89, the Cuchillo, Monticello and Chloride turnoff, for a more scenic tour of the lake. Cross over the highway and head east down through the canyon towards the lake.

John Akana’s Monticello RV Park resides off this unmarked, rural, recently paved stretch of two lane blacktop and he’s thrilled to see the lake rising.

“Because when the water went down, so did the business,” he says. “Before, this is where the fishermen used to be, they preferred it.”

Akana sells bait, tackle, gas and groceries at his RV park office and will be happy to see the anglers return with the rising lake.

This upper end of Elephant Butte Lake State Park features a new campground and boat launch and is preferred by those seeking a quieter stay than one may find closer to town, park officials say.

The road into town is called Rock Canyon Road and runs by numerous other turnoffs with names like Three Sisters, Club Cove and Lost Canyon that all lead down to the water’s edge.

These sites are remote and offer primitive camping for those seeking solitude among the dunes. Campfires are allowed within 125 feet of waters edge.New outhouses are provided throughout the areas and camping costs $8 a night. Field collection is $25 plus the camping fee if one is caught freeloading.

Visitors should be aware of the sandy conditions in these remote areas and drive accordingly. Four-wheel drive is recommended and stopping once you’ve gotten going isn’t.

Elephant Butte sees close to a million guests a year including crowds topping 100,000 over the three major summer time holidays. Weekdays during the spring and early summer are generally uncrowded.If You Go:

Take I-25 south through Albuquerque and Socorro to the Elephant Butte turnoffs just north of Truth or Consequences. About 400-mile roundtrip from Santa Fe. Camping available at numerous locations along the lake. Typical services available in Elephant Butte. A full service grocery store is located in nearby Truth or Consequences along with hot springs, hippies and some very cool architecture.

This article also appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Lure of Flyfishing New Mexico's San Juan River

Tim McCarthy of Albuquerque fishes the San Juan, spring 2008.

I knew a man once who considered the San Juan River below Navajo Dam nothing but a fishermen’s cathouse, stocked with big, bawdy fish whose sole purpose in life was to satisfy every anglers’ fishing, fantasy.

It was too crowded, too noisy and way too competitive for him. He’d rather stick to the solitude and simple beauty of his small, mountain streams.

He was right in many ways but I fear he missed the real lure of this river, the fact that you’re playing in the big leagues when you’re fishing the San Juan.

It features big, wary fish that can leave an angler crying in its wake as one escapes downstream.

That was me back in the winter of 1996 when a good friend and colleague of mine, Glenn May, dragged me kicking and screaming to the San Juan River in the middle of blinding, snowstorm.

“This’ll be great,” he promised as we pulled up to the cable hole just below the dam.

And it was, just as soon as I felt a heavy tug on my line and saw a tall fin cut through the water.

My reel sang as the big, powerful fish peeled off line.

Then she broke the surface in a monstrous splash of iridescent red, green and blue.

I leaned back on the rod and felt it go pop!

She was gone. I’d lost her.

And that’s all I could talk about for the entire, four hour, ride home across the slippery, snow-packed roads of northern Rio Arriba County.My buddy just kept grinning at me. He knew I was hooked and we would spend many more days down on this river together.

And over the years I’ve gone from spending just a day on the river to fishing it for a week at a time.

I’ve quit jobs just to fish this river at the right time and I like it best in the off-season, in the winter, when the weather has driven off all the others.

This river responds to the weather and under a slate gray sky with snow flurries threatening it can boil with a hatch of monumental proportions.

Looking about you may find yourself completely alone on a favorite stretch of water with fish rising everywhere. It’s a sensation that’s hard to beat.

But even in the on-season, this river has its allure.

When it’s crawling with anglers, the competitive juices begin to boil as you wade out to an available spot and start to fish.

And when suddenly, you’re the guy who’s hooked up while all the others stand slack lined and mute, you know you have reached your peak.But much like the rest of New Mexico the best part of San Juan can be found on its backside, off the beaten path, over on the far bank where no one really goes.

Here you’ll find the river in all of its natural, beauty, where the heartiest of fish may lie, a place where you can escape the hoots and hollers of the vacationing Texans.

Here you can make that long, lazy, silent cast into a seam of quiet water, to wait and watch as a great head breaks the surface, opens it mouth wide and takes in your miniscule fly.

Here against all odds you may hold your set until she’s just gone under and then you raise your rod tip ever so slightly to feel the hook bite.

She might thrash a few times causing your heart to quicken before she heads out into deeper water, steadily pulling out line before turning back in an effort to fool you.

You fight to retain the tension on your line and begin wading slowly towards the fish.

This could go on for minutes before you finally reel her in close enough to feel your breath catch upon the sight of her.She’s big, beautiful and bawdy all right and that’s why you’re here.

It’s here that you look around and realize you’re alone on one of the best trout streams in the country, you’ve masterfully caught one of its most prized possessions and maybe, just maybe, you deserve to be here.

Then you carefully back your barbless hook from its mouth and gently release this beautiful creature back into the depths.

Hopefully you’ll have a long walk back to your vehicle, along the top of a butte under our stunning blue skies or maybe along a trail running beneath the escarpment, amidst the tracks of deer and coyote.

This way you’ll have time to relive that moment, to catalog it in your mind and cherish it later.

Because here on the San Juan River, an anglers’ fantasy can be fulfilled, especially if one seeks her hidden beauty.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Fly Tying - A How to Guide

It is the essence of flyfishing, when a trout rises to the surface of the water to sip down a bug and discovers it has been fooled.

Then there is the great sense of satisfaction in knowing that the fish took your home-made fly as readily as any other.

Tying one’s own flies for fishing is a time-honored tradition among the flyfishing community and it’s the easiest way to save money on what can be a very expensive sport, says Bill Orr, former manager of the High Desert Angler fly shop in Santa Fe.

“Plus you get the satisfaction of catching trout on your own fly, you can tweak them any way you want and you’re not being afraid of losing them either,” says Orr, who is now a sixth grade school teacher in Los Alamos.

Hand tied flies can cost as little as 15 cents apiece compared to $2 a pop at the fly shop, Orr says.

“That’s a lot of money that can be saved for gas to go fishing,” Orr notes.

A beginners’ fly tying kit can be had for as little $50 from the Cabelas mail order catalog, complete with a vise and all the necessary hands tools, a supply of hooks and materials and an instruction book to get you started on some simple patterns, Orr says.

Some simple patterns for beginners include many of the traditional flies seen on Western trout streams like the Caddis dry fly and its emerger. Then there’s Wooly Boogers, Hares’ Ear Pheasant Tails and one of the most versatile of flies, the Adams, Orr says.

Many of the materials and equipment used to make these flies can also be bought a local fly shop. They consist of elk hair, chicken, duck, pheasant and peacock feathers, rabbit fur, and other materials that fly tying recipes call for.

It should also be noted some of these fly tying materials can found on the forest floor, by the streamside or at a local farm.

Orr remembers well one of his first experiences in dealing with a hand-tied fly.
It was on a trip to Crystal Lake in Wyoming at the age of 5 with his dad, a Texas oilman.

Young Bill hooked his dad’s ear with a #10 Fan Wing Coachman while learning to cast. “I remember all that blood when he yanked it out, barb and all,” Orr says.
Orr spent many a summer in Wyoming fishing with hisDad and his sister, Kris. He learned to tie flies from her. She played the oboe and tied her own double reeds for it on a rudimentary vise.“It looked a lot like she was tying flies so we asked her to whip us up a few while she was at it,” Orr says. “She got tired of that pretty quick, and I had to learn to do my own.”

One of his first creations was the “Murderer,” a wet fly turned dry by standing the wings up when he tied it. The body was made of black acetate floss that would melt to form a hard, shiny body when dipped in nail polish remover (acetone).

That fly caught him a record number of brookies at a place called Paint Rock Creek in Wyoming when he was 10 -- 168 of them.

Counting fish was all the rage then but most ended up being returned to the water, he says.Orr says he tied and fished that one pattern for years with great success and beginning fly tiers can do the same, tying their favorite patterns and fishing them with confidence.

Homemade flies can also be dressed up with beadheads and lead to make them sink. And flashy materials can be added to make them easier to see in muddy water, Orr says.

“There’s any number of things you can do when tying your own flies,” he says. “And it’s calming, meditative work.”

Kitchen tables have served fly tiers well for clamping down their vises and working off of, but one thing that’s absolutely essential is a spring loaded, adjustable lamp that can be moved about to shine light upon one’s work, Orr said.

And Orr suggests beginners buy Skip Morris’ “Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple” to get started and after attaining some skill, pick up “Fly Patterns of Northern New Mexico” to really get into the sport.

Orr and former coworker, Karen Denison, wrote the book that’s published by University of Mexico Press and features specific patterns and information for fishing Northern New Mexico’s trout waters.

Beginning fly tiers seeking help can usually find a class at their local fly shop or with a fly fishing club or perhaps through a continuing education class at their local community college.

Either way, it’s a great way to cut down on fishing costs, increase angling satisfaction and boast of being an artist, too.

The sun sets over the hills east of Santa Fe in March, 2008. This story originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's 2008 Fishing and Hunting Guide.

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