Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch - A Disneyland for Outdoorsmen

Matt Pelletier shows one of the many big trout that can be found at Ted Turner's Vermejo Park  Ranch  in northern New Mexico.
Guest column by Matt Pelletier of Fish Enchantment.

Have you ever dreamed of a "once in a lifetime" special fishing trip, an amazing, unforgettable, weekend where you caught so many fish your arms were sore for a week?

The kind of trip where there’d seem to be a bite at the end of every cast and you’d never see another angler on the water the whole time.

And on this dream trip you catch plenty of big fish, gaze out upon unmatched views and see a stunning variety of remarkable wildlife.

If so then you need to visit Vermejo Park Ranch where they are working hard to make these kinds of dreams a reality.

The ranch is located about 50 miles west of Raton, New Mexico and boasts just over a half a million acres stretching from Cimarron to Costilla.

It has 14 lakes and 30 miles of streams situated within its borders on the grassy plains and forests found in northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

It’s one of the largest tracts of privately owned property in the west.

And If you go you'll find big, aggressive, Brook, Brown, Palamino, Rainbow, and Cutthroat trout lying in wait .

There’s also a good chance you might see bears and bobcats, herds of deer and elk or even spy an eagle perched atop a lakeside tree, patiently waiting to capture a tasty trout.

It’s a Disneyland for outdoorsmen.

The guest lodge at the private resort, Vermejo Rnach Ranch, owned by Ted Turner  and located in northern New Mexico adjecent to the Valle Vidal.
One early May morning in 2011 my friend, Manuel Ortega, and I had the pleasure of driving through the electronic gate that leads into the ranch property.

I have only known Manuel for a couple years and during this trip learned something new about him, his great-grandmother grew up in Vermejo, so he was very excited to visit.

Seems her father was a ranch hand at the time and managed cattle near Costilla Reservoir.

Manuel said his great grandmothers’ house was located just below the Costilla Reservoir dam and is still there today.

When we arrived at the ranch headquarters we were greeted by staff members who seemed to be just as happy to see us as we were to see them.

They asked if we had any special requests, needs, food allergies, or any general question about the Ranch.

I explained that this was my third visit to the Ranch and my only request was to get on the water as soon as possible!

Manuel was just as eager to wet a line so they handed us our room key and we were on our way.

We unloaded our luggage in a nice, clean, room that had a window with a clear view of the road leading to many of the ranch’s great lakes; what a tease I thought, they must want you dreaming of fishing too!

The room featured a stone faced, fireplace and two beds built from varnished logs , topped with fluffy down comforters.

The room was also equipped with a sparkling clean, all white, tile bathroom with a walk in shower and antique fixtures that gave you the sense you were living back in the early days of the ranch, but in style, of course!

The dining room inside the resort lodge at Vermejo Park Ranch.
We then headed back downstairs to sit down to a delicious, buffet style, breakfast featuring smoked bacon, salmon, eggs made to order, hash browns, sausage, and delicious coffee.

It was great!

Before leaving we grabbed our pre-packed lunches the chef had prepared for us and topped them off the bags with chips, trail mix, candy bars, and drinks from the snack bar.

Now we ready for some fishing!

We pulled up to the Fish House where a ranch employee loaded a cooler full of ice in our truck to keep our harvested fish fresh. He then told us to pull up to the Battery House where he loaded our truck with freshly charged batteries and a boat trolling motor.

We were then officially "on the road" heading out into 920 square miles of pristine wilderness.

Our first stop was Merrick Lake, a catch and release only fishery where I've caught, and lost, some huge fish over the years.

My first trip to the Ranch is credited to my father who took me in 2004 and got me hooked.

The second time I visited the Ranch I paid for myself and my wife during a trip in which she caught all the big fish on spinning gear and all I did was lose fish after fish on a fly rod. You name it and I had problems with it on that trip, snapped lines, tossed or bent hooks, whatever.

Leah Pelletier shows off one of the monster trout she hooked and landed on a trip to Vermejo park Ranch with her husband, the author, Matt Pelletier.
Now three years later and with plenty more fly rod experience under my belt I was much more confident that I could handle anything these fish could throw at me.

And I was very anxious to chuck some big streamers out there so I could extract some revenge.

We opted to fish from the bank and started working the steep rocky shoreline and on my second cast my line darted off.

I set the hook and the drag started screaming.

After peeling out sixty feet of line while headed for the middle of the lake, the fish suddenly turned and came rushing back towards me!

I started stripping in line as fast I possibly could while running backwards along the dam in a desperate attempt to keep the line tight and the fish on.

Then the fish turned just twenty feet from the shore and took off again.

This time I started applying more pressure and all of a sudden the fish crashed through the surface and began thrashing about in the water.

I stood in awe from the display of strength she was exhibiting.

I employed some aggressive maneuvers by tightening my drag, palming the reel and holding my fly line tight with my right index finger so the fish couldn’t strip line from my reel as easily and I was finally able to net and release a nice, fat, 23-inch Rainbow trout.

For the next two hours we repeated this process of catching and releasing numerous 19 to 23-inch trout.

“What a way to start the day” I told Manuel.

“I know” he replied, “I just caught more trout over 20-inches in a couple hours then I have in my entire life!”

Matt's fishing buddy, Manuel Ortega, shows off a nice Brown trout he reeled in while fishing at Vermejo Park Ranch  during a 2010 outing.
We were amazed by the size of the fish in Merrick Lake but were now eager to explore more of the ranch.

There are so many lakes on the property that it can be hard to pick a destination but we couldn't resist fishing Munn Lake after being told of a 11-pound rainbow that was caught by a 10-year-old boy just two days earlier.

We pulled up to Munn Lake to find the winds had picked up and snow was starting to fall, but that didn’t stop us.

We loaded one of the boats parked on the shoreline and launched into the high winds with ease, thanks to the 55-lb thrust, motor they provided us.

We trolled the lake for a while and caught some nice chunky Rainbows casting towards the bank by the dam.

Later, while taking a break for lunch back at the truck, we relaxed and watched outside as the dry, grassy, plains bent under the force of the wind.

Overhead the shade from passing clouds cast shifting shadows on the ground and the surrounding mountains, making for ever changing scenery.

We noticed that the mountain peaks lacked the usual snow pack one would expect this time of year and the lakes’ water levels reflected the dismal amount of snowfall received over the winter.

New Mexico's drought hasn't seemed to hurt the fishing at Vermejo Park Ranch .
Nonetheless, the fishing was still good and we decided it was time to try somewhere else, so we headed off to Bernal Lake where we found the water was gin clear and the fish easily spooked.

To deal with those conditions, I downsized my tippet from 1X/13 pound test to 5X/4 pound test. I did the same with my fly, removing the #4-3X long, 4-inch, black streamer and replacing it with a similar version of the same fly but only smaller.

I proved to be the right move as I soon to landed a couple of nice, 18-inch, Rainbow trout.

Being this was a fly rod only lake, Manuel had to use one for his very first time.

These weren’t easy fish to catch and Manuel was having some trouble getting the fly to them without spooking everyone in sight.

So we decided to take off for another lake were we both could throw the gear we were most familiar, and successful , with.

While en route to Lower Underwoods Lake we watched on the vehicle’s thermometer as the temperature outside steadily fell; just like the snow that was coming down and getting thicker by the minute.

It was obvious we were going to be in for a much colder fishing experience up here in the high country.

But as we arrived at the lake, the storm passed over us and then the clouds broke, as if inviting us to start fishing.

And within 30 minutes, I had caught 5 fish, all in the 18 to 22-inch range.

In one case a fish suddenly nailed my streamer and started peeling drag from my reel at an alarming rate.

I tightened down on the fish by palming the spool and my six-weight rod bent like I had never seen or felt it do before!

Then the fish came out of the water, thrashing its tail across the surface while shaking its head mightily in attempt to dislodge the fly from its mouth.

Matt Pelletier fishts a big one at Vermejo park Ranch.
After what felt like an eternity of fighting I finally netted a 24-inch Rainbow trout.


This lake gave us tons of action; the fish were very colorful and healthy and they gave us a great fight every time we latched into one.

And Manuel was enjoying himself much more now that he had a spinning rod in his hands. And I was happy to know I wouldn’t have any more flies buried in my head from his back cast, so, I think it’s safe to say leaving Bernal Lake was a good choice at the time.

Then before we knew what was happening, another storm came in out of nowhere and in a matter of seconds the wind and snow had become unbearable.

It was getting late so we decided to wrap-up for the day back where we had started, at the dam on Merrick Lake.

This lake is the closest one to the lodge so it would allow us to get the most out of our last few hours of fishing on our first day. I'm sure we could have caught fish here all night but after catching several more twenty plus rainbow trout we finally called it quits and headed back to the lodge for dinner.

By then we were ready for a good meal, hot showers and some sleep to rest our aching bodies from a long day of battling big, hard fighting, trout.

Upon our arrival back at the lodge, an employee at the Fish House grabbed our cooler which contained 5 trout and asked us how we would like them cleaned.

A Vermejo Park Ranch employee at the Fish House's cleaning station prepares to filet some trout. 

He gave us a number of options from filleted with or without skin, head on or off, personal sized portions or whole frozen fish; we both requested fillets and saw no need to create portions.

Then the same gentlemen quickly unloaded our batteries and we made the fifty foot walk to the main lodge for dinner.

We stumbled into the dinning room and noticed a table with the name "Pelletier" on a card so we sat down there and a friendly gal came up and asked us what we would like to drink and presented us with a menu.

The options were excellent but neither of us could resist the stuffed, bacon wrapped, bison top sirloin, with mash potatoes and green beans.

During the short wait we walked around the two-storied lodge gazing at the d├ęcor and pictures that told a story of the history and lives behind the Ranch.

The lodge features many game mounts, the most amazing of which we found to be the full body, albino, bull elk hanging over the bar.

In the same room a huge chandelier made entirely of elk and deer antlers hung from the ceiling, and another similar, yet even bigger , chandelier, could be seen hanging in the dining room.

The interior of the lodge is made up of exposed, wooden, beams which were harvested from the forest here on Vermejo Ranch, just like the wild game meat we were about to enjoy.

Before we knew it there was a juicy Bison steak on the table which turned out to be one of the best dishes I've ever eaten in my life!

As a matter of fact, every time I've visited the ranch the menu has been different and ended up being some of the best dishes I've ever tasted.

We went to bed well fed and awoke the next morning refreshed and ready for another epic day!

We repeated the previous morning’s routine of enjoying a fantastic breakfast and then had our truck loaded with a new cooler of ice and some fresh batteries for the boat.

Freshly charged batteries and trolling motors await guest who want to fish the many lakes at Vermejo Park Ranch,a  private resort in northern New Mexico. 
The day’s plan was to explore some of the other lakes we hadn’t had a chance to fish yet.

Upon arrival at Bartlett Lake we found the winds were already roaring so we decided to fish from shore.

This is the same lake my wife caught a monster Rainbow trout and I landed a beast of a Brown trout right off the shore four years ago, so I was confident we'd do just fine.

I decided to use the same rod I had been throwing the day before since I hadn’t had any issues with failed gear, hooks, leaders, and so on. I pulled out the stout, six-weight, “St. Croix Avid” rod rigged with a 9-foot “Wonderfurl “ leader with 1X tippet and started casting away.

After a couple casts I hooked up with a chunky bow and it was game on! This was going to be another great day, I thought.

While we were making our way down the shoreline I was shocked to see a massive bear in the direction we were walking.

I yelled over to Manuel, “Bear!” and he nearly jumped out of his boots. He quickly looked over his shoulder at me and said “where?” and I pointed and said “right where I wanted to fish, over there by the cattails”.

The bear didn’t seem bothered by our presence at all and kept going about his business as if we weren’t even there. Although the bear was preoccupied we decided we had better stay put and be content with the water in front of us.

We continued catching browns and rainbows for the next hour, all the while keeping a watchful eye over our shoulder for the nearby bear.

Finally we decided that we had enough and it was time to try and get a picture of the bear from the boat. All the while, the bear was moseying around and had wound up in an open meadow staking claim to every tree and bush in sight.

We launched a boat in no time at all, set the motor for high, and started towards the bear.

It was a large Brown bear and judging by the size I would say it was a male. We watched as the bear continued marking his scent on the pine trees near the shoreline.

We were hoping to get some pictures of him while he was standing on its hind legs, scratching, bending, and shaking these large trees as if they were toys.

This was the first time I ever got to witness the raw strength of one of these animals and I’ll never forget the display of power it exhibited.

Unaware of our plans, the bear went about his routine when it suddenly it turned on all fours and faced the forest, its nose was up, as if it heard or smelled something of great interest.

Then in a blink of an eye it took off in a full sprint and disappeared into the woods, leaving me to preserve the memory without the luxury of any pictures.

After the big bear chase and its disappointing conclusion we caught several more fish but we wanted to continue exploring more of the ranch so we set out for Adams Lake.

This lake is slightly smaller compared to Bartlett and has a reputation for not being as windy when the waves at Bartlett are roiling.

Adams Lake consists of rocky transitions, grass flats and some large logs in the water. There are also several patches of cattails along the bank. The lake is surrounded by Pine, Oak, and Juniper trees but they are set back far enough from the shore to allow for fly casting.

We wrapped up our Adams lake session after having landed many fish and decided to finish the day where our great adventure began, back at Merrick Lake.

While unloading our gear I suggested to Manuel that he should bring his fly rod along.

This would be a great opportunity for him to land his first fish on a fly and I couldn't imagine him leaving without having battled one of these monsters on the “long stick”.

He agreed and accepted the challenge.

This time Manuel didn’t even need any casting lessons and was quickly casting 20’ of line with ease, and that was all he needed to reach fish in this lake.

Within a couple casts Manuel had a monster trout hooked up and was in for a real battle.

Neither one of us knew it at the time but the drag on his reel was broken so after being hooked this fish took off for the middle of the lake with nothing to hold him back.

Manuel’s reel was well into its backing and the questioning look on his face seemed to say, “Is this supposed to happen?”

He handled it like a pro and after several long runs into his backing and many leaps that showed just how high a fish could jump; he brought it in to the net for me.

Yet another twenty plus trout and after a couple pictures, a quick release, and a big high five, we were back to casting.

And it didn't take long for Manuel to land a couple more trout on the fly and with a quick lesson on how to palm the reel to create drag, he was bringing in those big Rainbows like a veteran fly fisherman.

We continued catching fish throughout the afternoon but the time for our departure was drawing near.

Our last catch of the day occurred as we both hooked fish at the same time.

After netting my fish I managed to fit his fish into the net too and we were staring at 45-inches of mean, squirming, trout.

After grabbing some pictures we decided we were both exhausted and would be content with finally leaving the ranch.

What an amazing experience.

And a hearty thanks to Vermejo Ranch for taking such great care of us during our visit!

I look forward to returning to the ranch again this winter to stay in their newly built $8 million dollar Costilla Lodge.

Ranch employees tell us it rivals the headquarters where we stayed during our trip.

The ranch is offering a special winter rate of $250 per person, per night. It includes room, meals, and winter activities including ice fishing, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, sledding, tubing, wildlife viewing and the services of a guide.

For more info check out the ranch’s website at

Matt Pelletier, 29, lives and works in Albuquerque along with his wife, Leah, also an avid angler. Pelletier is President of New Mexico Muskies Inc. and operator of Fish

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