Monday, June 23, 2008

On the San Juan River with Fishing Guide Peggy Harrell

Peggy Harrell, Fall 2007

You could call her the queen of the San Juan River.

She’s that good-looking gal behind the counter at Fisheads Fly shop.

The one dispensing expert advice on how to fish the blue ribbon trout waters or offering to guide a couple of lucky anglers below legendary Navajo Dam.

And in the man’s world of flyfishing, it’s a role she relishes.

“I love this job,” she says with a beaming smile, “And being a woman doesn’t hurt either.”

Peggy Harrell grew up with her younger brother and sister out in the Oil Patch of Hobbs, NM.

Their father was an auto mechanic while Mom worked for the telephone company.

In the summer the family would vacation in Texas, renting a cabin at a lake where the kids learned to fish.

“All the guys would get to go out in the boat but us girls always got left behind on the shore,” she says. “I felt bad but maybe it was just because they didn’t know what to do with us if one of us had to pee.”

During her career she has had to overcome other gender based obstacles in order to achieve respect as a fishing guide.

“When I first started out it seemed I’d get a lot of guys who didn’t listen to me or questioned everything I said,” she said. “Or maybe someone would try to squeeze into my hole out on the river. I always felt like it was because I was a woman.”

But Harrell says that changed, as she grew more experienced, confident and assertive.

“Now I feel like most clients who ask a lot of questions just want to know what my qualifications are,” she says.

Harrell says she’s been fishing on the San Juan River for almost 30 years and guiding for the last fifteen.

She ended up in this remote corner of the state because her husband was a lineman.

The couple moved to the area so he could work a job at one of the nearby power plants.

Harrell says her husband then was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish and he taught her a lot.

“We would go snagging for salmon up on the lake and then shoot ducks and fish for trout down on the river,” Harrell says. “We were in heaven here.”

But the husband moved on and Harrell stayed behind, making a go of things in the small community of Navajo Dam.

Harrell’s 34-year-old daughter, Nicole, lives nearby and she has five grandchildren.

“I don’t know if he (her former husband) knows what I’m doing these days but I’d like to thank him for nursing me through a lot of those early fishing trips,” she said.

Harrell also credits Chuck Rizuto of Rizuto’s San Juan River Lodge with giving her a start in the fishing business, along with a little help from Jane Fonda.

The way Harrell tells it she heard Fonda, the famous movie star and Vietnam War activist and her media mogul husband, Ted Turner, were floating the river with Rizuto one day.

So Harrell wandered down to Texas Hole to see the famous couple as they fished from their boat parked just off the bank.

Harrell says she struck up a conversation with Fonda after which the celebrity made a point of asking Rizuto why he didn’t have female guides on his staff.
Harrell says the next day Rizuto offered her a job.

“He was my mentor,” Harrell says. “I learned a lot from the man.”

And one of her first trips was to guide movie actor Kevin Costner on the river.

“I had to pinch myself at the end of the day,” she said. “Imagine, I got to go fishing with Kevin Costner.”

Harrell, who now a flyshop manager at Fisheads and still guides on occasion , says she enjoys working with a lot of men.

“And I enjoy being a woman,” she says. “So that certainly hasn’t hurt the business.”

Harrell likes to point out that fraternity of fishing guides on the river don’t treat her like she’s “just one of the boys” and that’s something she proud of.

Harrell, a 1970 Sandia High School of Albuquerque, says one of the most satisfying parts of her job is teaching clients how to successfully fish the San Juan River.

“And the primary key to that is an absolutely drag-free drift,” she says. “You can’t learn that fishing out of a drift boat.”

Harrell says she often feels sorry for those who take an expensive and productive float trip down the river but then find in ensuing days -- while wading on foot -- they may not be having as much luck.

That’s because the boat provides a perfect platform from which to dead drift an angler’s offering through the water, while the guide steers the boat to the best holes, picks the flies to use, sets the rig for the proper depth and tells the client when to set the hook.

“The poor guy hasn’t learned a thing for himself,” Harrell says.

A client who takes a wading trip with a guide like Harrell receives a half or full day’s instruction in how to read the water to detect fish, how to determine which flies to use and at what depth and other techniques like casting and how to detect a strike and then play and land a fish.

“That client walks away with enough information and hands-on experience to continue fishing the rest of this river with sucess,” she says. “When I hear them say I learned a lot, you taught me a lot, that makes my day.”

Harrell has some sage advice to those venturing out on the San Juan to stalk the river’s great population of big rainbow and brow trout especially this fall.

“Always stop at one of the fly shops and ask what’s working and where,” she says. “It’s amazing how many people come up here, fish all week, and then stop in on the last day and tell me what a lousy trip they had. They should have come see me first.”

Harrell finds verbalizing for customers what she can’t show them down on the river is a challenging but rewarding part of her job.

“When they come back and say ‘hey that worked,’ I always feel good,” she says.
And anglers need to remember the basics when fishing the heavily fished but well populated waters of the San Juan.

Harrell says stealth and a delicate presentation are just as important on the San Juan as a wilderness stream if anglers want to be successful, especially during the fall when the water is so clear.

During her guide work Harrell has also been tapped to served as an ambassador for the guides and fly shops on the San Juan. This spring (2007) she got to travel to California to speak to several fly fishing clubs about fishing the fabled river.

“I really enjoyed representing us,” she said.

Harrell can be reached at

Surprisingly, when Harrell’s not working, she’s fishing.

“I love to fish, I gotta have my fix,” she says.

During her off-time Harrell can often be found cruising Navajo Lake in search of bass and other freshwater fish with her boyfriend and fellow fishing guide, Mark Nesbit of Blue Sky Fly Fishing .

During a fall 2007 interview on the banks of the San Juan below Navajo Dam, Harrell offered the following insights:

Favorite time of year to fish the river:

“I tell people the best time to be on the San Juan is any time you can be here,” she says. “But for me it’s got to be the two weeks after the water comes down (usually in the early summer).”

Favorite spot to fish:

“Above the cable hole in the catch and release area, there’s no boats to deal with.”

Favorite fly:

“Right now it’s the grey Zebra midge.”

Favorite piece of equipment:

“A magnetic fly holder, it works easier and better than a patch.”

Favorite rod and reel:

“A Sage DS 9-foot, 5-weight rod armed with a Galvan reel.”

Worst pet peeve about clients:

“People who try to teach the sport to their children too soon and clients who don’t listen to me,” she says. “Most kids don’t have the physical capabilities or attention span before the age of twelve and why hire me if you don’t want my advice. Both can be a waste of my time.”

Most common mistake anglers make:

“Overcasting!” she says. “Casting over fish and casting too far to control the drift.”

Favorite river:

“I fish the San Juan almost exclusively,” she says. “I’ve been spoiled by the size and quantity of fish here.”

If you go:

From Santa Fe, take US 84/285 north to Española, cross the river and take US 84 north to Chama and then take US 64 West through Dulce to State Road 539. Cross the dam and go down to the river and the village of Navajo Dam is further downstream. About 185 miles one-way. An alternate, high-speed route but about 40 miles longer involves taking I-25 south to Bernalillo, then State Road 550 northwest to US 64 at Bloomfield to State Road 511 at Blanco and up to Navajo Dam. Camping at State Parks at the lake or down on the river. Rooms and services available in Navajo Dam.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's September, 19, 2007 edition of its Outdoors section.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

National Trails Day Puts Volunteers to Work

National Trails Day volunteers work on the Circle Trail at Hyde Memorial State Park in the mountains above Santa Fe on June 7, 2008. Photo courtesy of Bob Ward.

A group of volunteers armed with shovels, rakes and picks hiked high into the hills above Hyde Memorial State Park early this summer to give a forest trail a face-lift.

The effort was just one of many throughout the country to mark National Trails Day and highlighted two local organizations with a history of performing such public service.

The veteran group, New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors (NMVFO), teamed up with newcomers, REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.) of Santa Fe, to provide about 60 workers, including the author, to do the job.

“These guys were just fantastic,” said Sarah Wood of Hyde Memorial State Park. “This was one of the best turnouts we’ve ever seen.”

Bob Ward, manager of the soon to be opened REI store in the Santa Fe Railyards was credited with bringing in the bulk of the volunteers for the work.

Ward said he invited prospective employees of the new store to participate in the volunteer effort and filled the roster so quickly he had to turn many away.

About 40 REI volunteers joined NMVFO members and others to tackle the first mile of the Circle Trail that climbs a ridge just across the road from the state park in the mountains above Santa Fe.

The volunteers worked on the first mile of the trail which involved a steep climb of almost 900 feet to the top of a ridge which affords excellent views of the Pojoaque Valley and the Jemez Mountains.

Crews then worked their way back down the trail grooming it as they went.

NMVFO regulars like Jason Koschmeder, 30, of Albuquerque, served as crew leaders to train the volunteers how to eliminate trail side berms for erosion control, construct rock, water barriers and retaining walls and removal of debris and downfall.
Koschmeder, a nuclear medicine technologist, said he enjoys hiking and working outdoors, the camaraderie of a grass roots organization and doing something positive to preserve and protect the environment.

It’s a common bond that has drawn 150 members to the non-profit organization dedicated to improvement of outdoor recreational opportunities throughout the state, said Lowell Hioki, chairman of the group’s Board of Directors.

NMVFO has been in operation since 1982 and frequently assists local, state and federal agencies with projects.

The group’s volunteers have helped build or maintain hiking trails, paint visitor centers, stabilize archeological sites, remove barbed wire from wilderness areas, improve wildlife habitat, and perform other work as proposed.

Some work can be performed in a day, while other projects may require a weekend or even a weeklong, backcountry backpack trip.

The group has been doing a National Trails Day project at Hyde Memorial State Park for the past ten years, Hioki said.

The volunteers have also worked regularly in the Gila National Forest and Wilderness, at Navajo Lake State Park, on the San Juan River, Chaco Canyon and the Jemez Mountains, Hioki said.

Projects are open to anyone interested in helping out and can be found posted on the group’s website at www.nmvfo.

“You don’t have to join the group to join us on the trail,” he noted.

Hioki said he would love to see more parents and their teenage children get involved with the organization because it presents such a great opportunity to develop a family bond and more appreciation for the outdoors.

Lowell Hioki. Photo courtesy of Lowell Hioki

Hioki, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent, retired to New Mexico in 1997 after 33 years as an engineer with Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles.

Hioki said he decided to move to New Mexico after he became bedridden with pneumonia and his wife brought him a Tony Hillerman novel to read.

Hioki became hooked on the New Mexican author and has since collected and read every one of his novels and is now a proud resident of the state.

Hioki said his volunteer work is one way to give back something to his new home.

Ward of REI is a former Californian who ALSO moved to New Mexico after falling in love with the state after a business trip to Albuquerque.

Ward, who has been with REI for 15 years and formerly managed its Berkley and San Francisco stores, said he jumped at the Santa Fe job so he could move here.

Ward too said he hopes to give something back to his new home state and intends to have REI’s employees and members become actively involved in outdoor projects.

REI members and employees have a long history of performing outdoor, volunteer work in communities where their stores are located. Anyone with volunteer project ideas can contact Ward at

REI, a consumer-owned co-op that sells outdoor recreational equipment has about 4,000 REI members living in Santa Fe. The company has had a store in Albuquerque for many years.

The new Santa Fe store slated to open in late August or early September will be the co-op’s 100th nationwide.

REI, consistently ranked by Fortune Magazine as one of the nation’s best company’s to work for, has attracted an estimated 600 applicants for about 60 jobs at the new store, Ward said.

Volunteer efforts by groups such as NMVFO and REI are essential to the successful operation of the facilities such as Hyde Memorial State Park, Wood said.

The park needs even more for the summer season including volunteers to assist guests at the park’s visitor center, conduct educational programs for kids brought in on field trips or serve as trail stewards.

“They are our lifeblood,” Wood said of volunteers.

Anyone interested in assisting at Hyde Memorial State Park can contact Wood at 983-7175. Sarah Wood thanks volunteers for their efforts after a day of hard work on the Circle Trail at Hyde Memorial State park on National Trails Day.

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

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Road Trip NM - Cochiti Lake

Bill Diven of Media Placitas, summer of 2008. A self portrait.

Just down the hill from Santa Fe lies an often-overlooked oasis in the desert where one can take a refreshing dip at the beach, fish for bass in a secluded cove or windsurf across the waves.

“It’s what we’re all about,” says Ranger Pat Segura, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Cochiti Lake.

Just a 30-mile drive south of Santa Fe, outdoor enthusiasts will find beaches, boating, fishing, camping, picnicking and sightseeing available at the 12,000-surface-acre lake.

Opened in 1975, Cochiti Lake was built on the Rio Grande for a flood and sediment control and its waters dedicated to public recreational use.

Although located on Cochiti Pueblo lands, the lake and recreational areas are controlled and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, says Ron Kneebone, Tribal Liaison for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque.

In the future, Cochiti Pueblo may elect to operate food concessions at the lake, provide sailboat and windsurfing rentals or provide hiking and sightseeing tours, Kneebone said,

But there are no immediate plans to reopen the once popular, public fishing area below the spillway, says Cochiti Governor Joseph Suina.

Playing a fish near closing time. Photo courtesy of Bill Diven of Media Placitas.

The spillway area featured tail-water fishing conditions, including trophy sized trout, but was closed by the Corps at the request of the pueblo several years ago.

Two handicap accessible fishing areas including paved parking lots, floating fishing platforms, shelters and restrooms have since been installed on each side of the lake in its stead.

In the meantime Cochiti Lake remains a remote, unspoiled kind of place with plenty of open space and water to enjoy.

And ranger’s like Segura are hard at work to make sure a visit to the lake is a pleasant experience.

“We want families to feel comfortable coming here,” said Segura, 23, of nearby Sile, an old Spanish settlement of about 150 located across the river from Peña Blanca.

Segura is starting his fourth summer working for the Corps at Cochiti Lake and enjoys working as a ranger along with his brother, Jacob, who started at the lake last year.

Some regulations Segura says visitors should be aware of include the prohibition of alcohol at the lake and the requirement that life vests be worn by anyone canoeing, kayaking or floating around in inflatable devices such as inner tubes.

A nice smallmouth took the bait, a two-inch swimming shad. Photo courtesy of Bill Diven of Media Placitas.

Well-behaved pets are welcome at the lake but must remain leashed at all times and no open campfires fires are allowed, but gas and charcoal grills are.

Day use of the lake is free while primitive campsites can be used for $8 a night while those with water and electricity are $12. Boat launch fees are $3 for the day.

Cochiti Lake has a boat launch on both sides of the lake and fees for their use are $3 for the day. The entire lake is a no wake zone where outboard motors are limited to idling speeds, Segura said.

Segura said fishing at the lake is good with large and small mouth bass, crappie and perch in good supply as are walleye, pike and carp.

Fishing licenses and tackle are not available at or in nearby proximity to the lake. A state license is required despite the lake being on Indian land, he added.

Those visiting the lake will find the dam and the beach on the west side as is the visitor center and park headquarters. The east side features a windsurfing area and primitive day use and fishing areas.

For more information about Cochiti Lake visit the U.S Corps of Engineers website at and click on Find a Recreation Area.

Cochiti Laker is a haven for sailboats and windsurfers due to a steady supply of breezes. More information about boating at the lake can be found at the Boat Owners of Cochiti website.

If You Go: Take I-25 south to exit 264 at the bottom of La Bajada and follow State Road 16 to the west side of the lake and the beach. To reach the east side of the lake, turn off State Road 16 at the Tetilla Peak Recreation Area sign about three miles west of I-25. At the east side of the lake follow the paved road down to the boat ramp and then take the dirt road to reach the windsurfing area. This gate closes around dusk. About a 30-mile, one-way drive to either side of the lake. For gas, ice and groceries, take 1-25 past the Cochiti exit and get off at the Santo Domingo exit for fuel. Follow State Road 22 into Peña Blanca for groceries and then continue on State Road 22 to the west side of the lake. Take State Road 16 at its intersection with State Road 22 to double back to the east side of the lake. No fishing tackle or licenses available at the lake.

The Jemez Mountains serve as a backdrop for those visiting Cochiti Lake.

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

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