Our vision of the river shimmered in the 95 degree heat and a wave of dry, hot air enveloped us as we came to a dusty stop in a parking lot on the legendary San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico.
My fishing partner, T.A. Phillips, eyed me suspiciously as I rooted around the back of the aging GEO Tracker and tossed a beat-up set of hip waders and a pair of thick, wool socks in a heap at his feet.
“It might be hot out here but it’ll be cold in there,” I said of the river fed by bone numbing, cold water, released from the base of nearby Navajo Dam.
I watched as Phillips wrestled on the waders, shrugged his way into a fishing vest and then sprayed a heavy dose of aerosol sunscreen about his head.
He followed this with an equally misty, dose of bug repellant, clamped on a high-tech, booney hat, rolled down the sleeves of his lightweight nylon shirt and tied on an old fashioned neckerchief around his neck.
I chucked him a couple of liter bottles of water, an apple, banana and a few trail bars and we were ready to enjoy a long summer’s day on one of the best trout streams in the West.
Staying well hydrated, remaining in the cold water, creating your own shade and eating light is the key to beating the high desert heat and blazing sun that makes this one of the West’s better known winter fisheries.
But here in the summer, anglers who know how to handle the hot conditions will enjoy great dry fly action, lots of sight fishing in incredibly clear water and a really memorable experience, especially in the weeks following the annual spring flush.
The San Juan River’s flows are managed in part to maintain a downstream, endangered fish’s habitat so the flows normally run at about 500 cfs (cubic-feet-per-second) most of the year except for in the spring.
Then they crank it up to mimic the natural spring time runoff found on free flowing streams and send out about 5,000 cfs for a week or more depending how much water Navajo lake is holding and how much more is flowing in from feeder creeks and rivers.
And when they bring the water back down to normal the river really turns on!
We spent four days during the second week of July, 2009 on the river. The first couple of days the water was flowing at a nice pace of 850 cfs and then it was increased to 1,000 cfs for the last two days of our stay.
But even at the higher flows we were still able to negotiate most of the river in hip waders, crossing at specific spots known to be fordable under those conditions.
I prefer using three ply, lug soled, hip waders on the San Juan because I have done a lot of hiking while fishing there, sometimes covering several miles in a day. I have found insulated, canvas and rubber hip waders to be nearly indestructible when bush whacking and they are well ventilated when worn with shorts, an important consideration in the summertime.
And even if I do happen to step in too far and fill my boots with water I find it refreshing to lay down on the bank on my back, raise my legs and let the cold water run down into my shorts.
In the hot, dry, desert sun they’ll dry out in no time at all and I’ll be all that much cooler for the slight discomfort of my swampy boots.
We began our trip at Simon Canyon where one can usually find the river deserted during the week and there’s plenty of shade to be had among the great cottonwoods that grow here.
Phillips is a great warm water fisherman but still new to fly-fishing, so we wanted to let him work on his casting, mending and fishing with flies on a quiet part of the river.
Simon Canyon is also just a pleasant place to fish. You can stroll down the bank chucking a roll cast out into the current and letting your rig dead drift down to an occasional trout lurking below.
It’s quiet here with remarkable scenery and plenty of action if one knows how to fish it.
We did fairly well that afternoon, fishing downstream of Simon Canyon, picking up some very nice rainbows and an equal number of browns lurking in and around the strategically placed boulders installed by the state Department of Game and Fish recently to improve fish habitat and water quality.
We had luck on top with #12 and #14 stimulators, #16 caddis and #22 and #24 parachute Adams. We found a #22 grey CDC emerger tied off the back end of the dries also logged a number of additional hits. A #18, copper beadhead, flashback pheasant tail nymph tied off a pale yellow egg worked well off the bottom.
Anglers should be note that there will be plenty drift boats floating through this area later in the afternoon as guides head down to the takeout area at the gravel pit just around the corner.
Here below Simon Canyon one might also meet a fisherman armed with a spin casting rig working his way upstream from the bait waters below.
A polite inquiry about the angler’s gear and a friendly reminder that to fish up here it’s catch and release with a single, barbless hook is usually enough to send most back downstream to the “bait and take” waters down below the gravel pit.
At Simon Canyon anglers will find a couple of fine, primitive camp sites under the trees that allow an early riser to get first crack at the water.
And at the end of the day the flickering light of a campfire, dancing off the overhanging cottonwoods at Simon Canyon is enough to make one think they’re in their own “Old Milwaukee” commercial, where “it just doesn’t get any better than this.”
It should be noted this is primitive camping here with no trash pickup or water but there’s vault toilet in the parking lot.
And the noisy, gravel, parking lot here can get busy with visiting anglers, other expectant campers and hikers seeking the old Indian kiva up Simon Canyon. A lot of locals, out for an evening drive, like to swing through here too, just to check things out.
But when the timing is right and things quiet down, this can be a great place to own a piece of the river for a few nights and really experience the San Juan at a different level, free of the crowds and the noise found at the full service campground down the road and the mobs of anglers staked out on the upper stretches of the river.
There’s also a hiking trial that leads upstream to the deep water at ET Rock and then on through the woods to emerge on the far bank at Baetis Bend for some equally fine fishing.
The following day we fished the back channel at Baetis Bend looking for those trout that had moved in during the high water and would hang around as long as it stayed that way.
We found some great dry fly action and plenty of sight fishing to be had along with some much appreciated solitude.
We emerged from the back channel into the wide expanse of water found at the Lower Flats where we picked up several nice fish hanging out in the usual places along the edges of seams, in the faster water or on the bottom of pools.
We worked our way further upstream past Three Island Run all the way up to Jack’s Hole where we spotted a couple of bigger trout hanging out at the tail of a deep pool below a shelf where the water churned in.
Through the gin clear water we could see the fish seesawing back and forth in the current snatching passing food. We choked up our rigs to dapple the goods right before them and had one on in no time. But trying to pull them out of the heavy, deep current took time and effort and those became our last for the day.
We headed back down to Baetis Bend along a dirt access road and arrived back at our camp tired and ready for a few ice cold beers.
It’d been a good day.
But the next day turned out to be even better as we went upstream and fished down the back channel between the bottom end of Texas Hole and the Lower Flats. It was here that Phillips landed the best fish of the trip, a big bruiser laying up in the shallows.
And she was caught on a little, green, flashback emerger we tied up just that morning.
There’s something to be said for sneaking around those back channels and the lower flats where you can see the fish you’re trying to catch.
And there’s just no substituting the thrill of seeing that flash of white as a trout opens its mouth to take your fly and then the explosion of water and color as it of bolts with its back cutting a swath through the shallow water.
It was great to see that in just a few days Phillips had mastered the art of catching these elusive back water trout, reeling in one after another, like he’d been fishing here for years.
On our last day on the river we elected to go upstream to the Upper flats and the Cable hole where the majority of visiting anglers here tend to fish.
We tiptoed in our waders across the upper flats to the far bank to get away from the crowds and were rewarded with a couple of very nice fish.
But it just wasn’t as much fun fishing up here as it had been downstream and in the back channels .
It was uninviting to look out across the river and see a line of stationary, well appointed anglers, spread out along the edge of a seam, standing in the same spot hour after hour.
And there was no solitude to speak of as the cheers and remarks of anglers echoed across the water whenever one of them hooked up.
So we’ll probably stick to those downstream stretches the next time we come back to enjoy the trophy class fishing found on the San Juan river below Navajo Dam in northwestern New Mexico and maybe you should give them a try too.
Summer fishing and camping tips for the San Juan River:
Sunscreen and lots of it:
Only a fool goes out on this river without sunscreen and lip balm. Use it and forget about the macho sunburn to prove you’ve been on vacation, let the pictures do the talking.
Bug spray and lots of it:
Deet based sprays seem to work best for mosquitoes although those pesky gnats don’t seem to be deterred by anything here.
The bottom line is expect to be swathed in the stuff for days on end and make sure you have it with you in your fishing vest.
And don’t leave the screen door in your tent open for long, you’ll regret it later when you find yourself trapped inside with all those guys buzzing around and feeding off you.
Water and lots of it:
You’ll never feel yourself sweat here because it evaporates so fast. Thus you may never realize how much water you’re expending. So it’s imperative to stay hydrated. If you find your piss is really yellow or a pinch of your skin doesn’t bounce back then you’re probably already dehydrated. Other signs include cottonmouth, tiredness and mental fatigue, headache and lightheadedness. Do not disregard any of these symptoms, cool yourself off with a dunk in the river, get into the shade and rehydrate!
Don’t venture out onto this river for any length of time without at least a couple of liters of water. Carry a lightweight water filter if need be but most importantly drink plenty of water and do it before you become thirsty, before you head down to the river.
Remember! Your stomach and body is your best canteen.
Limit caffeine and alcohol intake as they contribute to dehydration. Pack a baggie of powdered Gatorade in your fishing vest to add to your water for more rehydration power.
Ice and lots of it:
Ice melts fast here so keep your cooler out of the sun, if it’s in the car, crack the windows to let out the buildup of heat. Use sun shades in the windows. Anticipate the track of the sun and park accordingly. Keep the cooler wrapped in a sleeping bag or blanket for added insulation. Take one cooler for food and another for beverages, use block ice if you can find it, the stuff lasts forever. Don’t dump out the cold water in the bottom of the cooler until absolutely necessary. It’s what’s holding the cold. Put your food in doubled zip-lock bags to keep the water out and store standing up. Use a beer can coozie to keep your beer cold while your mouth is busy talking about the fishing.
The days are long out here and most folks are usually rolling in late and they’re beat! So keep dinner simple.
Fry up some burger with some garlic, sliced onion and green pepper, add a can of Ranch Style beans, top it off with some shredded cheese and sop it all up with fajita-size tortillas. I’ve lived for weeks on this stuff and it only takes one skillet to cook it up and eat out of.
Live off fruit, especially apples, trail bars, peanuts, crackers, tuna fish and beef jerky during the day.
Expect to find yourself sitting at the local bar or restaurant looking for someone else to make you dinner at least once during your trip to the San Juan so bring money and don’t look at the prices.
A wide brimmed, well ventilated hat is essential to deflecting the sun and keeping cool. I love those big straw hats with the ventilation holes woven in along the brim but always have to remember to apply sunscreen to my scalp to avoid a funny looking and nasty sunburn. You’ll see some great hats on this river but many don’t belong. Remember it’s all about ventilation and shade.
Wear long sleeved, lightly colored shirts to protect your skin and deflect the sun. Nylon and other synthetics are lightweight and dry quickly.
Carry a neckerchief. It can be dipped into the water and slung about the neck to cool down. Use it regularly to soak your head too, a slight breeze across a wet scalp is natures’ swamp cooler.
Remember it’s not a fashion show, leave that to the posers up in the Texas Hole parking lot.
Take shorts and sandals and expect to live out of them for days on end.
Camping Tips and Tricks:
Bring a spray bottle and a couple rolls of paper towels for cleaning up yourself and your cooking utensils. The spray bottle also comes in handy for applying a cool, refreshing mist to the head and body. It’s even better at cruising speed!
Bring a toilet kit with your own nice, soft, toilet paper and a package of those personal towelettes so you can stay comfortable and clean for days on end.
Sleep on top of your sleeping bag under a light, cushy blanket, it’ll be more comfortable when you first go to bed when it’s still warm outside. Don’t add the rain fly to your tent unless you’re sure it’s going to rain, it’ll be much cooler and breezy inside. But keep it nearby, just in case.
Make sure you bring a sweat shirt, rain coat, jeans and sneakers, just in case the weather turns nasty. If you don’t, it will.
Bring all of your pillows, a good book and reading light and use ear plugs, if needed, to assure a good night’s sleep. Bring extra batteries because you will fall asleep with your reading light on.
Embrace the hum of the oil and gas rigs, they provide the fuel we use every day to run our vehicles, cook our food, and heat and cool our homes. Until something better comes along don’t knock it.