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Legendary Ant Fall on San Juan River Amazes Anglers

Posted by on September 20, 2011
An angler in the mist on the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico.

An angler in the mist on the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico.

They landed on the water with a plop and then began to wiggle and squirm.

Big, black, flying ants and plenty of them.

It didn’t take long for the trout to rise from the bottom and start gulping them down.

We had lucked into the rare and legendary ant fall on the trophy class waters of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam in the northwestern corner of New Mexico.

Our luck started with a stop in at Abe’s Motel and Fly shop where the guy behind the counter noted the previous evening’s heavy rain and suggested conditions were ripe for such an event.

Then a guide hurried in looking for Chernobyl Ants and offered us suggestions on where and how to fish them, in the fast water with a splash, he said.

This was the same guy who went out of his way pick me up one day while I was trying to thumb a ride from the “take-out” at the gravel pit back up to the “put-in” at Texas Hole.

My brother-in-law was up there waiting for me with his drift boat. I had driven the truck down under the mistaken assumption that it would be easy to thumb a ride back up.

Ron picked me up and told me otherwise.

Nice guy, most fishermen are, but it seems there are plenty of others in this neck of the woods who couldn’t be bothered.

Ant patterns for San Juan River trout.

So we grabbed a few of the Chernobyls along with a number of smaller ant patterns featuring florescent green foam indicators on top.

Armed with these big, heavy, flies me and my buddy set out for our favored haunting grounds at Baetis Bend.

We waded into the river through a foggy mist and set up shop by the island where my partner got right into them while fishing deep with the gray, RS2, Baetis emerger as a dropper.

My time came when the ants began to fall since I love nothing better than to fish on top with dry flies.

I always looked at fishing nymphs as a way to simply pass the time till the risers appeared, especially here on the San Juan.

So I took  to that dry fly action with a passion, casting to one rising fish after another and hooking into them with great satisfaction.

And these fish fought hard, ran deep and leaped magnificently on this grey, misty morning.

Most were beautifully colored rainbow trout with the occasional brown trout mixed in and all measured well within the San Juan’s average 16 to 19-inch range.

I couldn’t help but wonder what those old timers who can sometimes be heard whining at streamside about what the good old days were like would have to say on a day like today.

Probably something like it used to be even better, young fella!

But on this day the river appeared to be in great condition in part because of an unusually heavy, winter, snowpack that forced the Bureau of Reclamation to release a buildup of reservoir water at a much higher rate and for much longer period than usual.

The high flows scoured out a lot of silt and sediment which improved stream life and gave the river’s dense population of trout a nice break from the near constant fishing pressure found at lower flows.

And now we were enjoying the benefit as we caught and released one amazingly, feisty fish after another.

A San Juan Ant

A San Juan Flying Ant.

But it was up in the tail end of the deep run below the lower flats that I hooked into the fish of the trip, a monster that refused to come out of the deep water and seemed to have fought forever.

She was a fish that had obviously survived many years here and when I finally landed her by the bank I had to take a photo before returning her to the water.

But once she was back in the water I realized she wasn’t recovering and a wave of panic began to wash over me.

I held her by the tail and slipped a hand under her belly and began to gently sway her back and forth to get some water flowing through her gills.

She seemed to respond so I let her go and watched as she slowly moved off to a nearby outcrop where she stopped and rested.

I watched as she sat motionless, her mouth opening and closing and then she began to roll over onto her side.

I waded out and reached in to right her and held her again, swaying her back and forth in the water in an effort to keep her alive.

I felt ashamed for subjecting her to the added strain of suffocating on the bank while she waited for me to take her photograph, a bad one at that.

I hoped and prayed she would recover.

A big San Juan river trout recovers by the bank after being caught.

Then she suddenly seemed to snap awake and began to struggle to escape my grip.

I let her go and watched as she swam off into the deeper water where she disappeared into the depths.

I figured that the fish was well over 20-inches long based on comparisons  with my 22-inch long net.

And soon after that the reign of ants ended.

We had stumbled into one of those rare days that normally only those who work on the river have the chance to experience and lucked out! We can now say we fished the San Juan River during one of it’s legendary ant falls.

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