Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gov's $250,000 for San Juan Habitat Improvement Projects Saved from Budget Axe

A $250,000 appropriation to fund more habitat improvement projects on the quality waters of the San Juan River has survived the recent legislative budget battle and the state Department of Game and Fish can now move ahead with plans for improvements to the trophy class, trout fishery.

“The San Juan River remains a high priority for the Department. We are pleased that this money is still available to maintain the quality fishing experience known by so many anglers,’ said Marty Frentzel, Chief of Public Information and Outreach for the Department. “ We plan to re-evaluate the projects we planned last year, determine if they are still our priorities, then implement the projects as quickly as possible.”

The department learned this week that the $250,000 appropriation sought and secured by Governor Bill Richardson during the 2009 legislative session was still available for use. It was thought that the funds had been lost during recent state budget cuts to address a massive shortfall, said state game Commission Chairman, Jim McClintic.

“This is great news,” McClintic said. “The Governor really came through for us on this.”

The $250,000 appropriation had been funded through the sales of bonds last year and still remained available for use after the Governor’s freeze on all capital outlay projects was lifted in February, said Linda Kehoe, Principal Analyst for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Richardson’s Chief of Staff, Gilbert Gallegos, confirmed after consulting with the Department of Finance and Administration, that the money was indeed still available.

However, another 2,500 stalled capital outlay projects with a cost of about $141 million that had been frozen by Richardson were subsequently eliminated to produce budget savings.

It’s expected that the department will now pick up where it left off last fall when it was in the process of seeking bids for plans to divert Rex Smith Wash at Texas Hole to reduce silt and sediment coming into the river along with storm runoff.  (see related story)

The plans sought would also include designs to improve an area known as the Braids, also at Texas Hole, to improve fish habitat and fishing conditions there.

The plans were the result of stakeholder meetings held in 2009 to formulate ideas to maintain angler satisfaction at the popular fishing destination.

Richardson had stepped in with the funding as controversy raged that year over the perception that fishing conditions on the river had declined due to low flows implemented by federal operators of the dam over the last decade to accommodate endangered fish downstream. (see related story)

The San Juan River fishery is estimated to contribute an estimated $30 to $40 million to the state’s economy each year while accounting also for a significant portion of the state’s overall fishing license sales.

News that the funding was still available was welcomed by those who live and work on the river.

“That’s’ thrilling news,” said Larry Johnson, Secretary of the San Juan River Guides Association. “It’s our hope and desire that they expedite the bidding process before we lose it again. “

The funding has a shelf life of about four years, Kehoe said.

But the department needs to get its bids in and select a contractor to start on the project before a new administration comes in and possibly reauthorizes the money for something else.

“They better get cracking if they hope to hang onto it,” Kehoe said.

Johnson said previous habitat improvement projects the department has built on the river have yielded excellent results and that the money has been well spent and a great benefit to anglers. (see related story)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Swift Water Rescue Training Prepares Guides for Rafting the Rio Grande, Chama River

 Steve Harris, a Swift Water Rescue Training Instructor with Far Flung Adventures oversees a recent training session on the Rio Grande for river rafting guides and the public.

River runners are gearing up for another season of thrills and spills on the state’s biggest river after having just completed three days of swift water rescue training on the Rio Grande near Pilar.

Bobbing up and down in the swift moving, muddy water, several students in brightly colored gear waved their arms and shouted for help as others on the bank pitched ropes to them.

“At a gut level people know this is dangerous, that’s why they get a rush out of it,” Steve Harris, yelled over the roar of the river. “And that’s why we do these classes, to minimize the risks and be prepared and well trained in the event something does happen.”

Swift-water rescue instructor John Weinmeister of Known World Guides demonstrates the proper technique for corralling a passing swimmer during a recent training exercise on the Rio Grande. 

The three-day course teaches and tests students on various swimming and rescue skills, how to handle boat flips and entrapments, rope- and knot-tying and other aspects of safe river rafting, said Harris, 61, of Far Flung Adventures, who has been guiding and instructing on the river for over thirty years .

“This is good,’ said Barbie Trujillo, 27, of Taos as she emerged wet and grinning from the water. “I’m gaining a real perspective of what the guides go through daily.”

Trujillo is the office manager for Native Sons Adventure Co. of Taos, just one of several permitted operators that provide guided, rafting trips on the Rio Grande.

Harris said the rafting industry on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama generates about $7 million in gross receipts each year and directly employs about 200 people. Its overall economic contribution is pegged at closer to $25 million, he added.

The Bureau of Land Management which oversees the rafting industry on both rivers in northern New Mexico requires at least one certified swift water rescue trained guide per trip and guides must be recertified every three years, Harris said.

Guides must also be certified in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation as well as have proven experience behind the oars.

Harris also conducted a one-day refresher course for guides that attracted another 14 students the day following the three-day course and expects other operators in the industry are doing the same to be prepared for the upcoming season. 

Swift Water Rescue training students practice techniques for dealing with disabled victims.

During the season operators will continue to minimize the risks by screening clients to determine their swimming ability and experience as well as other criteria to determine if they’re qualified to ride, especially demanding stretches such as the Taos Box and the Race Course, Harris said.

Customers who end up riding the waves with a licensed operator also receive pre-trip instruction on rafting safety including defensive swimming, self rescue, re-boarding an overturned raft, avoiding entrapment, use of a lifeline and other safety techniques, Harris said.

“It’s all about minimizing that risk,” he stressed. 

Swift Water Rescue training students practice tossing, and catching life lines  on the Rio Grande. 

The industry’s last recorded fatality occurred back in 2005 during a record snowpack year which produced especially high, fast, cold water. 

That year Carolyn Whalen, a 61-year-old from Heber City, Utah, drowned during a commercial rafting trip on the Rio Grande while Airman 1st Class Jacob P. Hampson, 23, of New York state, died on a military, rafting excursion near Pilar.

It is expected that with current snow pack conditions hovering around their average this year that the river will be flowing at a more moderate pace thus lessening some of the risk associated with river running.

Nonetheless rafting enthusiasts will find all the thrills they can handle during the prime rafting season from now through June.

Thrill seekers need look no further than the Rio Grande’s “Race Course” section for five of the wildest, wettest miles of fun on the state’s biggest river where they can find plenty of experienced outfitters willing to take them downstream through this scenic stretch of river off State Road 68 between Espanola and Taos.

During a typical spring runoff in June spectators can be seen lining the highway to watch the brightly colored rafts and their ecstatic passengers plunge through towering waves of whitewater generated in this steep sided canyon.

And those looking for even bigger thrills can inquire with operators about running the Taos Box, 17miles of river known for its hair-raising rapids and jaw dropping plunges which produces a ride amusement parks can’t rival. 
                       Photo courtesy of New Wave Rafting, Embudo,NM. 

But Harris of Far Flung Adventures thinks that maybe the industry needs to rethink its promotion of these high-water, death-defying rides.

“We probably need to tone down that emphasis because there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Harris said.

Harris said the rafting industry, the public and the environment might benefit more from a mellower river experience like a slow, scenic float down the Rio Chama or a lazy, summer day’s trip through Orilla Verde Recreation Area on the Rio Grande above Pilar.

“I think as time goes by more people are going to be hungry in their souls for that kind of contact with nature,” he said.

Harris is also director of the non-profit, stream flow and watershed advocacy group, Rio Grande Restoration. He lives on the river in Pilar with his daughter, Viola.

Rafters and kayakers on the Rio Grande near Pilar, New Mexico.

More information about the river and its opportunities, including a list of licensed operators can be found at the Bureau of Land Management’s Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center in Pilar or by going online to and browsing the recreation section under the Taos field office tab.

If You Go. The primary “put in” for rafters is located on St. Rd. 68 at Pilar near the BLM’s visitor center while the newly remodeled “takeout” is located several miles downstream at the Taos/Rio Arriba County line. From Santa Fe take U.S. 84/285 north to Espanola, stay on Riverside Drive through town and proceed on St. Rd. 68 through the canyon north towards Taos. About 62 miles one way.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Navajo Lake and the San Juan River-Flyfish Them Both for Twice the Fun!

Peggy Harrell and a Navajo Lake smallmouth bass.

It’s fly fishing at its best, a double header weekend, pursuing trophy sized trout on New Mexico’s legendary San Juan River one day and then casting to aggressive, small mouth bass on nearby Navajo Lake the next.

Navajo Lake in northwestern New Mexico harbors the cold clear waters that feed the San Juan River’s fabled blue ribbon trout fishery while also providing a home to a wide variety of warm water, sport fish including the feisty little, bass with the blood red eyes.

“It’s widely considered by many to be the top small mouth bass fishery in the state,” says Marc Wethington, a Department of Game and Fish fisheries biologist stationed on the San Juan.

Twenty-four-square-mile, Navajo Lake plays host to numerous bass tournaments every year and is expected to produce the state’s smallmouth bass record, again, someday soon, says Mark Nesbit of Blue Sky Flyfishing of Navajo Dam.

Navajo Lake once held the state’s smallmouth bass record for a 22-inch, six pound, 14-ounce fish caught back in 1999. That record has since fallen to Ute Lake on the eastern plains of New Mexico where a 24-inch, seven pound, three ounce whopper was snared in 2006.

“I love em, they’re tough, they fight, they’ve got attitude,” Nesbit says of the small mouth bass found in the 15,000 acre lake straddling the Colorado and New Mexico border.

Most days Nesbit finds himself on the San Juan River guiding clients along the quality waters in search of Rainbow and Brown trout.

It’s where the real money is as the river draws thousands of anglers to its banks every year with most coming from out of state and in need of a guide.

But at least a dozen or more times a year Nesbit gets to put on his Captain’s hat and take clients out onto the lake in search of both large and small mouth bass, northern pike and the ever smart and elusive carp.

The best times of year to hit the lake are in the spring and fall and Nesbit says he enjoys turning clients on to the art of fly fishing on the lake, using big streamers to entice the predatory and territorial pike or small poppers and ant patterns to bring the bass and carp to the surface.

He does it for work but mostly for fun, Nesbit says.

One spring day in 2009 Nesbit and his wife, Peggy Harrell, also a San Juan River Guide, took the author along to fish the lake for just that purpose,to have a little fun, relax in the warm sunshine and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

  Peggy Harrell and Mark Nesbit and their bass boat at Navajo Lake.

While motoring along in Nesbit’s 18.5 foot long, bass boat powered by a 175 horsepower, outboard motor, we happened to spy a couple of fish swirling about the surface under an overhanging rock along the rocky shore line.

Upon approaching we saw that one fish had partially inhaled another and was in the process of trying to wolf it down while a third stalked it in an attempt to steal its prize.

Nesbit laid out some line from his fly rod and deftly dropped an ant pattern with a splash upon the surface. The pursuing fish turned from its previous quarry and raced over to the fly, snatching it from the surface greedily.

Nesbit set the hook as we all laughed in amazement and then reeled in a nice small mouth bass, just one of dozens we caught that day.

The hottest time for small mouth bass is generally from mid-March through mid-June and then again in the fall from mid September through November, Nesbit says.

Nesbit prefers fly fishing for the smallies with top water lures like poppers and jerk baits and large ant and cicada patterns. They will also chase soft plastic lures bounced off the rocks and jigged as they drop down the rock face below the surface, he says.

Anglers can also fish a little deeper during this same season for largemouth bass lurking amid the submerged rocks and trees  found along the sheer cliff faces that make up a great deal of Navajo Lake’s extensive shoreline.

Soft plastics like Gitzits and Senko worms are quickly pursued by largemouth bass that can reach sizes up to 8 to 10 pounds and will put a bend in your rod, Nesbit said.

During our outing we managed to land several largemouth that had repeatedly taken a watermelon speckled Gitzit.

But for some real fun Nesbit likes to stalk the crafty carp that inhabit the lake.

These big fish are social animals that tend to travel in groups and can often be seen swimming just below the surface.

They will take a well placed fly, like the cicada pattern, but stealth is important in catching one of these monsters, Nesbit says.

Carp are thought to emit a scent or electromagnetic signal that alerts other carp in the area to danger, accounting for their ability to all disappear just as a lure splash lands in their vicinity, Nesbit said.

“If you can fool one of them you’ve done your work, “Nesbit says.

During a day on the lake with a guide like Nesbit, anglers can conceivably catch all of these species as well as crappie, bluegill and perch and catfish.

  Mark Nesbit shows off a nice Navajo Lake largemouth bass.
Nesbit said he prefers to practice catch and release to sustain the fishery at Navajo Lake and appreciates clients who share the same ideology.

“Why not just take a picture and return the fish to the water so someone else can enjoy the same thrill of the catch,” he says.

Nesbit says he’d also like to see the bag limit on the lake reduced to to encourage people to take less fish from the water and a slot limit imposed setting a minimum size at which fish can be harvested.

“You get a lot of people coming up here, fishing their limit and they end up with a freezer full of fish they throw out six months later,” Nesbit said. “It’s a waste of the resource.”

And if anybody’s actually eating their daily limit of fish caught in some New Mexico lakes, they might want to consult the state’s advisories about heavy metals and other toxins found in fish, Nesbit said.

Anglers who eat their catch should review the state Environment Department Fish Consumption Advisories for more information regarding tests done on fish at various bodies of water throughout the state, including the contaminants found and the recommended levels of consumption.

Nesbit says one of the best things about Navajo lake is the ability to get away from it all for the day.

With many secluded coves, sandy beaches and mile and mile of remote shoreline, one can truly escape at Navajo Lake.

Boat rentals are available at the marina and visitors should be prepared for any kind of weather by dressing in layers and bringing a raincoat, wide brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and plenty of water.

Nesbit said Navajo Lake can be an unforgiving place for those who mess with it.

“This is no pond where you can swim 30 yards and climb out,” he says. “This is a big, deep lake that deserves respect."

   Navajo Lake and Marina.

Because of its size and remoteness, those who venture out onto the lake should be prepared to take shelter from sudden storms and use common sense when such situations arise.

The afternoon we were out we could hear thunder far off to the north where rainclouds could be seen building, but on the lake it remained sunny and mild.

Nesbit said we had ten more minutes to fish and then began to stow his gear.

We were stowing the last of the gear and preparing to dash across the lake as the wind began to rise and the sky darkened.

“I’ve seen squalls come up and cover this lake with four foot waves just like that,” Nesbit said with snap of his fingers.

And that’s when you have to decide either to seek shelter in a cove and ride it out or run for shore.

And a lot of that depends on your boat, Nesbit says.

That afternoon we sped across the lake at speed, riding the crest of the waves and pulling into the boat launch just as the rain began to come down.

Nesbit who is celebrating his 10th year in business as a fishing guide working out of Navajo Dam, had called it just right.

Nesbit grew up in Albuquerque where he graduated from Eldorado High in 1975. His is Dad was a chemical engineer, and his Mom, a homemaker and part time waitress, used to take him and his older brother, Paul, camping and fishing in the Pecos and Jemez Mountains, when they were kids.

“Mom was from Germany and knew how to fish for trout,” Nesbit said. “She used cheese and it worked pretty damn good.”

But it wasn’t until later in life, as he split his time between wrenching on motorcycles and driving eighteen wheelers, that Nesbit got bit by the fly fishing bug and then the San Juan River.

   Mark Nesbit with one of Navajo lake's other resident fish.

He was working as a Jet Ski repairman at a shop in Albuquerque when a co-worker talked him into going fly fishing on the Pecos.

Nesbit had fished using traditional means for years, particularly when living out in California on the Sacramento River where he chased steelhead trout.

But the San Juan was a whole different deal and a few hundred dollars later he had the gear he needed to chase trout on the fly.

“So we’re out there on the river and this guy shows me how to cast, once, twice,” Nesbit says. “Then he hands me the rod and takes off.”

Nesbit says he managed to lay his caddis fly down on the water and watched as a little trout came to the surface to sip it.

“That literally changed my life,” he says.

Nesbit began making trips to the San Juan River every chance he got and became proficient at working the water.

Then he jumped on the opportunity to buy a piece of property in the area thinking he could open a Jet Ski rental and repair shop there someday.

But that didn’t work out so instead he took a job at a motorcycle shop in Durango where he could at least he could be close to the river that had captured his heart.

Then one day he found himself headed back out onto the road, behind the wheel again, and thinking of selling his property off to finance a new truck.

But instead he turned his property over and bought another, now his current homestead on a bluff overlooking the river where he has since planted his roots and hung out his shingle.

After ten years in the guide business, Nesbit is optimistic about the San Juan River’s future. He knows the legendary flows that made the river famous will probably never return and sees no sense in dwelling on the past.

Instead he thinks efforts that are already underway, like plans to install a diversion at Rex Smith Wash at Texas Hole to limit silt and sediment from entering the river will accomplish much to keep the river viable.

Nesbit said he also supports some of the in-stream habitat improvement projects like those found below Simon Canyon where he now sees more bug life and a more robust trout population in what was once a barren area.

Nesbit says efforts to draw attention to the river have helped prompt state game and Fish Officials to resume stocking the river at a more sustainable level, created new regulations like the two fly rule and catch and release only within the entire quality waters and led to stepped up law enforcement, all of which will help keep the river healthy and productive for anglers.

“Overall I’d say the future for the river is good,” he said.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

White Rock Offers Spectacular Views & Great Hike Into Rio Grande Canyon

High above the Rio Grande the overlook at White Rock offers a dizzying view of the canyon below and for some, all the motivation that’s needed to take a hike into the rugged country found down there.

Spring fed creeks, a splendid waterfall, fascinating petroglyphs and solitude rewards those willing to descend into White Rock Canyon on a warm, spring day.

Located in the sleepy, little bedroom community of White Rock, the overlook provides a jump-off point to the canyon below and also offers visitors a spectacular view of Santa Fe’s backyard.

From the overlook visitors can see across the river to where Buckman Road and Camino La Tierra ends at the river and the snow-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristos that tower over Santa Fe.

But it is in the canyon below that visitors can find evidence of the ancestors of local pueblo Indians who lived, farmed, hunted and left their drawings of wildlife and other things carved into the smooth, dark basalt rocks found in the canyon.

Hikers will find two marked routes into the canyon, the blue and red dot trails; both steep, rocky climbs covering about a mile and dropping about 800 feet into the gorge.
The blue dot trailhead and information kiosk can be found near the overlook in a small parking lot adjacent to a grassy playing field.

The red dot trailhead is accessed off Piedra Loop found on the other side of town in the La Senda subdivision located across Pajarito Canyon from the overlook.

The red dot trail leads to the springs and waterfall and features many petroglyphs along the way.

Hikers wishing to make a round trip into the canyon utilizing both trails will cover about three miles along the river before heading back up, and out, on either trail.
A roundtrip hike will require a secondary ride or other arrangements to return to the original starting point.

Those seeking a less strenuous outing can utilize the canyon rim trial originating at the overlook and which meanders along the rim.

Extreme caution is advised while exploring the rim trail due to the steep cliffs, high winds, loose rocks and other potential hazards such as rattlesnakes, cactus and environmental exposure.

Contact Craig Martin, Open Space Specialist for Los Alamos County for more information at 505-663-1776 or by email at .

Visitors can also stop in at the White Rock Visitors Center just off State Road 4 on Rover Boulevard for a map and more information. They’re open seven days a week from 9 to 4 P.M. during the spring, summer and fall.

At the center visitors can also learn more about the interesting history of the community of White Rock, born as an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) town for construction workers building the labs at Los Alamos, birthplace of the first atomic bomb.
The temporary town established in 1949 was built entirely of prefabricated materials including over 400 homes, dormitories, trailer spaces, two schools and stores, according to a historical brief written by Elizabeth Aiello, a school teacher at the time.

She also reported such retail spots as a grocery market, drug store with counter service, a barber shop and beauty salon, a liquor store, hardware store, The town also had a police and fire station, according to Aiello.

But by 1954 construction at Los Alamos was winding down and the town of 2,000 residents was dismantled piece by piece. Within five years it no longer existed and local teenagers from the valley used the weed-choked highway there as a drag strip.

But then in 1960 the AEC sought bids for the “redevelopment” of the White Rock and today visitors can now drive through a town that looks like it was lifted straight out of the “Leave It To Beaver” show and boasts a population of about 6,000.

If You Go:

Take U.S. 84/285 north to Pojoaque and follow St. Rd 502 to the intersection of St. Rd. 4 and follow the signs to White Rock. At the traffic light turn left onto Rover Blvd. The White Rock Visitor Center is located in the strip mall on your right. Turn left on Meadow Lane to go to the overlook park. About 35 miles, one way.
White Rock is also the gateway to Bandelier National Monument.

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