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The Lure of Fly Fishing New Mexico’s San Juan River

Posted by on October 15, 2011

Karl Moffatt and a big, bawdy San Juan River trout.

I knew a man once who considered the San Juan River below Navajo Dam nothing but a fishermen’s cathouse, stocked with big, bawdy fish whose sole purpose in life was to satisfy every anglers’ fishing, fantasy.

It was too crowded, too noisy and way too competitive for him. He’d rather stick to the solitude and simple beauty of his small, mountain streams.

He was right in many ways but I fear he missed the real lure of this river, the fact that you’re playing in the big leagues when you’re fishing the San Juan.

It features big, wary fish that can leave an angler crying in its wake when one escapes downstream.

That was me back in the winter of 1996 when a colleague of mine dragged me kicking and screaming to the San Juan River in the middle of a blinding snowstorm.

“This’ll be great,” he promised as we slid to a stop at the parking lot above the Cable Hole just below the dam.

And it was, just as soon as I felt a heavy tug on my line and saw a tall fin cut through the water.

Then the surface erupted in a blaze of iridescent red, green and blue.

A Snowy Road to the San Juan.

A Snowy Road to the San Juan.

I leaned back on the rod and felt it go pop!

She was gone.  I’d lost her.

And that’s all I could talk about for the entire, four hour, ride home across the slippery, snow-packed roads of northern New Mexico.

My colleague just kept grinning at me.  He knew I was hooked and would be good for a few more trips to this river.

And over the years I’ve gone from spending just a day or two there to fishing it for a week at a time.

I’ve quit jobs just to fish this river, at the right time of year.

I like it best in the off-season, in the winter, when the weather has driven off all the others.

This river responds to the weather and under a slate gray sky with snow flurries threatening it can boil when the Baetis hatch.

Looking about you may find yourself completely alone on a favorite stretch of water with fish rising everywhere.

It’s a sensation that’s hard to beat.

But even in the peak season, this river has its allure.

When it’s crawling with anglers, the competitive juices begin to boil as you wade out to an available spot and start to fish.

And then maybe you’re the guy who’s hooked up while everyone else is just standing around clutching their rods.

But much like the rest of New Mexico the best part of San Juan can be found on its backside, off the beaten path, over on the far bank, where fewer people go.

A lone angler fishes a quiet back channel of the San Juan River.

A lone angler fishes a quiet back channel of the San Juan River.

Here you’ll find the river in all of its natural, beauty, where the heartiest of fish may lie, a place where you can escape the hoots and hollers of the vacationing Texans.

Here you can make that long, lazy cast into a seam of quiet water and wait  for  a great head to break the surface, open its mouth  and inhale your miniscule fly.

Here against all odds you may hold your set until she’s just gone under. And then you raise your rod tip ever so slightly to feel the hook bite.

She might thrash a few times causing your heart to quicken before she heads out into deeper water, steadily pulling out line before turning back in an effort to fool you.

You fight to retain the tension and the upper hand before wading slowly out towards the fish.

This goes on for minutes before you finally reel her in close enough to feel your breath catch when you see her.

She’s big, beautiful and bawdy all right and that’s why you’re here.

A San Juan River brown trout lurks in the depths.

A San Juan River brown trout lurks in the depths.

It’s here that you look around and realize you’re all alone on one of the best trout streams in the country, you’ve just caught one of its most prized possessions and maybe, just maybe, you deserve to be here.

Then you carefully back your barbless hook from its mouth and gently release this beautiful creature back into the depths.

Hopefully you’ll have a long walk back to your vehicle, along the top of a butte under stunning blue skies or maybe along a trail running beneath the escarpment, amidst the tracks of deer and coyote.

This way you’ll have time to relive that moment, to catalog it in your mind and cherish it later.

Because here on the San Juan River, any anglers’ fantasy can be fulfilled, especially on the far bank.

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