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.


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