It’s a hazy summer morning at Heron Lake and fishing guide Don Wolfley is backing his 24-foot pontoon boat into the water for a day of deep sea fishing – New Mexico style!
“Remember you’ve got to stay in contact with them,” he says of the deep running salmon we hope to hook into this day. “If you can’t feel, then reel. Don’t stop reeling.”
Wolfley, 67, is heading into his 17th year of guiding on Heron Lake in northern New Mexico and is one of the last of the “old school” breed of fishing guides.
“I’m the last one here,” he says of the deep, cold, lake with its plankton rich green waters where anglers have flocked for years to chase tasty salmon and catch giant lake trout. “There once used to be seven of us.”
Wolfley guides for Stone House Lodge located on the lake and his own clients through Heron Lake Guide Service.
Wolfley, a self described laid back and unassuming guy, says he still gets a big kick out of fishing after all these years and will continue guiding as long as he still does.
“I just take it a season at a time,” he says.
Wolfley says fishing for the landlocked salmon stocked in Heron Lake by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish is a little different than some anglers might expect.
The silvery fish found at Heron Lake typically range in size from 12 to 20 inches with the average catch being about 15 inches.
They have a soft mouth and can be easily lost if an angler fights them too hard.
“They can be a tough fish to catch,” he says. “They require finesse and a light touch.”
Salmon tend to run in schools and can best be found by using a boat outfitted with a sonar fish finder which also determines the quarry’s depth.
Once the fish are located, Wolfley then uses a set of downriggers to take his fishing line and lures down to the best depth to catch them.
Wolfley’s downriggers incorporate a heavy weight attached to a metal line wound upon an electrically operated winch with a depth counter.
A trolling rod and reel is mounted into a nearby holder and its line is lightly attached by a pressure sensitive clip to the downrigger.
The downrigger in then lowered into the water where it drags the fishing line and lure down to the desired depth.
Attached to the fishing line just above a lure baited with Wolfley’s specially scented corn is a flashy metal spoon designed to catch the salmon’s attention as the rig runs through the water.
Then as the boat idles along slowly, it’s time to watch for a strike indicated by a good twitch and deep bend in the rod as a fish is hooked.
Then comes the tough part: Reeling in quickly while lifting the rod tip to unsnap the downrigger clip from the fishing line.
After that the rod should be dropped back down towards the water’s surface and the line reeled in to establish contact with the fish.
If a salmon is on the line, it will soon be felt tugging, then the angler can gently reel it in, stopping if the fish starts to run and resuming when it doesn’t.
Lastly as the salmon comes into view the angler needs to gently coax it to the surface.
Then with a lift of the rod the fish should break the surface, where Wolfley can get his net under it.
“But sometimes you can lose one there at the end,” Wolfley says. “And that’s just fishing.”
But if successful, the angler will get a high five from Wolfley and can keep going until filling his or her limit of five fish for the day.
Wolfley cleans and filets all of his client’s fish and packages them to be taken home to cook.
And just like the salmon found at the supermarket, the fish from Heron Lake possess a bright orange color and when properly dressed contain few if any bones to deal with.
Salmon filets can be breaded and fried, broiled or grilled. It’s all good.
And fish fresh from the water and caught with your own hand seem to be even more flavorful, Wolfley notes.
Wolfley, a trim and fit man who once used to run long distance marathons because it gave him time to think, is a retired Albuquerque Public Schools administrator with a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico (UNM).
Wolfley’s wife, Norma, is also retired from the Albuquerque Public Schools where she taught for more than 30 years.
The couple has a daughter, Linda, who is pursuing a medical degree at UNM.
Wolfley says the two love to fish and that his wife is better at it than he.
“Oh, she’s good, alright,” he says as he describes the big, 17-pound lake trout she once caught in Heron Lake or the giant 21-inch salmon she once reeled in from the lake’s depths.
During the summer the couple share a modest home nestled on a ridge overlooking El Vado Lake just downstream of Heron Lake on the Chama River.
“It’s the best of both worlds, having the two lakes,” Wolfley says. “And it’s quiet and peaceful.”
Anglers can fish for big lake trout with Wolfley during the early months of the year in March, April and May and then sign on for salmon fishing during the summer and fall.
Wolfley usually calls it quits for the season around the beginning of October and then spends his winter at his second home in Albuquerque.
And while a day on the lake with Wolfley can be exciting when the fish are on, it can be relaxing, too, especially when good conversation fills the void between strikes.
His father, Fulton, was a railroad worker and his mother, Mary, a homemaker.
“It’s kind of funny because my dad had these old bamboo flyfishing rods that we used to use like you would a cane pole,” Wolfley says. “Just to dangle a worm in the water.”
Today vintage bamboo fly rods are considered highly valued antiques by many fly fishing purists.
And while Wolfley has fly fished too, he still thinks that pound for pound the earth worm is the most effective tool for catching fish.
“I guess I’m just old school that way,” he says.
It was in the early 1960s that Wolfley moved out West like his brother did before him and was accepted at UNM.
“It was a bit of geographic culture shock,” Wolfley says of the move. “At first I couldn’t get over the scarcity of grass and trees and there was all this blowing dust. But I always did like Mexican food, so it kind of grew on me.”
And nowadays you can’t get Wolfley to stop singing the praises of his adopted home state, especially the scenic mountain vistas and sparkling waters found at Heron and El Vado Lakes.
If You Go: From Santa Fe take US84/285 north to Espanola. Cross the river and stay on US84 through Abiquiu and on north towards Chama. After passing the village of Los Ojos take the turnoff to Heron Lake on NM 95.