For many anglers New Mexico’s Rio Grande gorge and its tumbling river is an intimidating and stingy place to fish.
Its reputation for skunking even seasoned anglers may cause some to pass it up for easier fare elsewhere.
But those who’ve managed to overcome this maddening river’s mysterious ways say the fishing can reach mystical proportions.
And perhaps no one knows that better than longtime friends, fishermen and fellow writers, Taylor Streit and John Nichols, both of Taos.
Nichols was one of those guys who could be found fishing the river in cheap sneakers and jeans with the cuffs rolled up back in the 1970’s.
Rods were made of fiberglass then, leaders from “cat-gut” and reels made by Martin.
In those days Nichols could be seen bouncing along rutted roads on the rim of Rio Grande Gorge in a low slung, four door, Chevy Impala looking for new ways down to the river.
He carried no net, used crude, nameless flies and lunched on bologna sandwiches washed down with warm Coke.
Nichols fished the late afternoons and loved hopping from one slippery boulder to another to fish the foaming pools.
He loaded his line with a duo of wet flies, “skittered” them across the surface on a short leader and “cleaned up” on a regular basis.
Streit in the meantime had opened a fly shop in Taos and was building a name for himself as one of the Rio Grande’s best fishing guides.
Ironically both men learned to fish the Rio Grande from legendary local angler, Charley Reynolds, but they rarely had occasion to do it together.
That’s because Streit spent his days guiding clients while Nichols was home in bed after writing all night.
But they became longtime friends after meeting at Streit’s fly shop where they often compared notes and exchanged tales.
These days Nichols, 73, doesn’t fish his beloved river much anymore. A chronic inner ear problem makes it difficult to keep his balance on the river’s tricky terrain.
But his friend Streit, 67, took him out during last year’s caddis hatch to a gentle stretch of the river near Manby Hot Springs.
They got into a few trout that day and Nichols says hopes to do it again this year too.
But more recently the two were able to get together down on the Rio Grande at Pilar where they were asked what the secret was to fishing the big river?
The hell with you, buy our books, they said with a chuckle.
Streit’s guidebook “Fly Fish New Mexico,” and his instructional manual “Instinctive Fly Fishing” are essential reading for any angler.
But it’s his book “Man vs Fish” where one can read more about a rare day of day of fishing the Rio Grande with Nichols, the man whom Streit says knows more about the river than even him.
To many Nichols, 73, is best known for penning his trilogy of fictional northern New Mexico based novels, the “Milagro Beanfield War,” “The Magic Journey” and “The Nirvana Blues.”
But others might be even more inclined to know Nichols from his trilogy of memoirs, “If Mountains Die,” “The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn” and “On the Mesa.”
In those books one can gain some insight into Nichols’ world and also learn a lot of what it takes to fish the mercurial Rio Grande.
Nichols notes in “Last Beautiful Days of Autumn” that entering the gorge “is like walking into both a physical and spiritual meat grinder” where “there is no end to the fabled calamities of this mighty river.”
And with his trademark humor and irony Nichols proceeds to recount all of the things that can and will go wrong while fishing down in the Rio Grande gorge.
Busted rods, missing reels, spills and the ever-present fear of an encounter with a rattlesnake.
“You know I never did meet one during all those years,” he says now.
And while much has changed in recent years on the Rio Grande even more has remained the same, Nichols says.
“It’s still a rugged, remote, challenging river where half the battle is getting there,” he says. “That’s what I loved about it, the work involved and the triumph of surviving it.”
Nichols “skittering” technique involves the use of a short leader from which two or even three wet flies are dangling. The rig is then twitched across the top and just under the surface of the water to entice a trout to strike.
Nichols says the technique works best in the roiling waters found among the boulder fields of the river.
One of his favorite spots is the run between Little and Big Arsenic Springs campgrounds in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro.
Nichols says the key to successfully fishing the Rio Grande is to be alert and prepared.
Always let someone know where you’re going and carry matches, a poncho, sweater and windbreaker, polarized sunglasses and water.
Other than that, pack as lightly as possible and leave the waders behind, Nichols suggests.
“Just watch your step, the basalt rock down there is very slippery when wet,” he warns. “Try not to fall in.”
Nichols says the fishing is actually pretty easy once you get down there and if the sun is off the water it can be really good.
Streit agrees with Nichols that the Rio Grande fishes best in the shade and that an angler can do better in the more remote areas of the gorge.
By simply hiking a couple miles up the canyon from either the Taos Junction Bridge at Pilar or the John Dunn Bridge at Arroyo Hondo an angler can find unspoiled water and great fishing, Streit says.
“There are still places on this river where the trout have never been caught,” says Streit. ”And we’re still finding new ways to get to them.”
The Rio Grande Gorge and its stunning scenery is now protected from most commercial development under its designation by President Barack Obama last year as a national monument.
And the long neglected campgrounds and day use areas along the river at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area near Pilar have received much needed facelifts.
The popular nine mile stretch of river between the Taos Junction Bridge at Pilar and County Line takeout downstream was stocked with some 30,000 catchable size rainbow trout over the course of the season last year, says Eric Frey, Sportfish Program Manager for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
But the upper stretches of the river between the Wild Rivers Recreation Area and John Dunn Bridge have been stocked in recent years with native cutthroat trout, Frey said.
The cutthroat plantings have produced a population that is now reaching the 14 to 16-inch range and with time could rival some of the bigger browns found in the river.
The department is working to reintroduce cutthroats back into their native habitat throughout the state and wants to provide anglers with the opportunity to catch them, Frey said.
An unintended but added benefit of stocking cutthroats into the Rio Grande is that they can now breed with the wild rainbows to produce a very colorful, hard fighting and drought tolerant fish, Frey said.
The Rio Grande is holding a lot of fish these days, Frey says.
The most recent electro-shocking survey on the river back in 2008 revealed a healthy amount of trout in the 8 mile stretch of river between La Junta and the John Dunn bridge, Frey said.
The survey revealed about 1,400 trout per mile with twice as many browns as rainbows and some monsters in 25-inch range, Frey said.
The survey recorded catching almost three times as many fish per mile in the remote 16-mile stretch between the John Dunn and Taos Junction bridges, Frey said.
Veteran Rio Grande Fishing Guide, Streit, says the long running drought has actually improved fishing on the river.
There’s less spring runoff carrying silt and sediment into the river so it’s running clearer more often which allows for extra fishing days.
“I’ve never seen it fish any better than it is right now,” Streit says.