Salmon snagging season has begun across much of northern New Mexico, drawing a hardy group of anglers to area lakes where the brightly colored, tasty fish can be caught in big numbers.
“It’s a long-standing tradition and great way to stock the freezer,” says Marc Wethington, Fisheries Biologist for the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). “But it’s not for the faint of heart.”
New Mexico’s kokanee salmon are stocked, landlocked, sockeye salmon that upon reaching sexual maturity, usually at the age of about four, will mass in schools during the fall in a futile effort to spawn.
Because salmon typically need a river and proper conditions under which to reproduce, these fish will not find much success at that in New Mexico’s lakes.
And then they’ll begin to die.
Which is why the state has a special snagging season beginning Oct. 1 at Navajo, El Vado, Abiquiu and Eagle Nest lakes where anglers are allowed to use heavily weighted treble hooks to snare and keep up to 12 salmon a day.
The angling method requires little finesse, just a heavy line on an expendable rod and then finding where the fish have amassed. Usually a crowd of other anglers is a good indication.
Then the angler heaves his hook into the water and repeatedly rips and reels in an attempt to snag a fish.
It’s a popular method for harvesting a great deal of the fish that are said to be good eating especially if caught early in the snagging season.
Heron Lake won’t be open to snagging until mid-November to accommodate NMDGF workers who will spend the next few weeks capturing and milking millions of eggs from spawning salmon there.
The eggs will then be collected, sorted, fertilized and reared at the department’s nearby Los Ojos hatchery and used to restock the state’s deep water lakes with the popular sport fish.
Heron Lake is where Joe Carrillo, 35, of Tierra Amarilla, plans to be with his son and a good buddy for their annual “midnight run” on opening day.
“It’s become a tradition of ours,” Carrillo says.” It’s usually the last outing of the year before the snow flies.”
Carrillo says he’ll go out to the lake that Friday evening and grab a nap at a campsite before hitting the water at the stroke of midnight.
“I’ve been skunked before waiting till morning,” he says.
Carrillo says it’s “combat fishing” with lots of anglers bundled up in bulky, winter wear and standing shoulder to shoulder, slinging their heavy treble hooks around.
“You’ve got to watch your back and keep an eye on your neighbor but there’s some etiquette practiced there, too,” he says. “It’s a good time.”
Many anglers like to head over to Eagle Nest where the snagging might start a little earlier due to the lower temps found in the high country, says Sue Finley of Eagle Nest Marina.
The marina is found off Highway 64 on the south side of the lake and anglers can inquire there about fishing conditions and grab some supplies before heading down to the water.
Many anglers like to congregate on the south side of the lake at the boat ramp and along the shoreline near the new campground and visitor center at Eagle Nest Lake State park, says Marshall Garcia, superintendent and 30-year veteran of the state agency.
Anglers can camp out at the state park until Dec. 1 at any one of the park’s 19 sites featuring a shelter, picnic table and campfire ring. There are no utilities available other than a communal water spigot and outhouse, he notes.
Anglers at Eagle Nest Lake will find plenty of other fishing to keep them entertained after snagging their limit for the day, says Mark Stewart of Dos Amigos Anglers in downtown Eagle’s Nest.
Trout will stalk the spawning salmon schools and feed off eggs that come free, he says.
Stewart notes that one of the traditional uses of salmon during the spawning season is the collection of their eggs for use in “roe sacks” which can then be used to fish for any big trout stalking the spawners.
Anglers will cut a small square of old pantyhose and wrap it into a bundle with some eggs and a small marshmallow inside to help it float and then tie the bundle with thread around a treble hook and set out after trout.
The same method can be used to snare a pike, too, he says.
The notoriously predatory pike were illegally stocked into the lake by someone and their population has grown at an alarming rate with some pike being found in the 30-inch range.
The NMDGF has lifted the bag limit on pike at Eagle Nest and require anglers to keep any and all pike they catch from the lake. The department wants to eliminate as many of the predatory fish as possible to limit the damage they are inflicting on the popular trout and salmon fishery.
Stewart says bagging a pike would not only be a great catch but be a good way to help the lake too.
Anglers will find the north side of the lake at the Moreno Day Use area and further down the bank at the Honey Hole between the old hotel and the dam to be good spots to snag for salmon and fish for trout and pike too.
If You Go: From Santa Fe take US 84/285 north through Espanola to reach Abiquiu Lake and for El Vado and Heron Lakes, just continue on the highway up to Tierra Amarilla and follow the signs. For Navajo Lake continue on US 84 through Chama to US 64 at the turn off to Dulce. Follow to NM 527 and cross the dam to reach the marina. For Eagle Nest Lake take NM 68 out of Espanola and then turn east on US 64 at Taos and follow to the lake.