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Part Eighty-six

Cimarron in Spanish means Wild - Untamed

By Thomas Peña, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cimarron in Spanish means; wild, untamed, all good adjectives to describe the fish and the fishing in this river. The Cimarron is a tail water fishery: it has its origin from Eagle's Nest Lake's dam, New Mexico. The dam acts as a large spring for this Sangre de Cristo Mountain fishery. Typical of any tailwater and similar to a natural spring, the water's temperature is regulated coming out from the bottom of the Eagle's Nest Lake. This source of cold and nutrient rich water produces an environment that provides an excellent base for a superb trout fishery. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department have done surveys and found it to contain nearly 4,000 catchable size trout per mile. The river has also been designated as Special Trout Waters because of its ability to produce high numbers of good trout.

Brown trout are the principle fish species, numerically and qualitatively, that anglers seek in this river. The Browns are spawned, live, and die all in this fine piece of water. Many anglers consider the Cimarrron the premier Brown Trout Stream in New Mexico. All the fish in this river average about a foot long but fish up to 15 and 18 inches are commonly caught. Even larger fish have been taken by knowledgeable anglers familiar with the river and fish producing techniques. A few Rainbow Trout inhabit the water along the entire stretch, also. The Rainbows are hold-over fish that are stocked at the campground and move downstream to the Special Trout Waters. The Rainbows grow thick and fat on the abundant insect life. As expected, they quickly become savvy to all the lies and hiding places in the river. Of course, the Rainbows become conditioned to natural food and grow selective in the taking of natural insects and therefore, artificial flies.

The first half mile of the river from the dam downstream is on private property and angling is only allowed by permit (C. S. Cattle Company). Next, the Cimarron River flows through the Tolby Campground where the New Mexico Game and Fish stock Rainbow Trout and normal fishing regulations exist. Then, the river passes the campground and for the next mile and a fifth are the Special Trout Waters. Here, the angler must fish with a single barbless fly or lure with a single hook. There is also a size limit of 16 inches minimum and a limit number of one fish.

The makeup of this portion the stream is a combination of a canyon section and a nice meadow like section. The meadow section can be found right at the beginning of the Special Trout Waters next to the campground. The Cimarron River meanders back and forth across the small valley prior to entering the canyon section. Old and active beaver dams are located throughout this section, as are numerous bends and undercut banks. Casting in the meadow section isn't too encumbered by the stream side brush. The runs, meanders and beaver ponds can be fished with relative ease. This section is normally the most crowded with anglers on any good fishing day. If many anglers are on the water, the fishing can be poor, not due to fish being caught but from the multitude of poor casts and people walking in areas where they should be fishing. Anglers encountering a lot of people fishing this section, may consider casting a weighted nymph in the deeper runs and riffles.

In the canyon area walls of this valley close in on the river. The fishing in the canyon section isn't too easy. Overhanging trees and brush are always present to snag the back cast or intercept an almost perfect forward cast. Keep casting distances to a maximum couple of rods lengths with leaders no longer than eight feet. Wading in the center or at the edge of the river and casting upstream is the only method that can produce in the canyon section. Here the river is full of boulders, riffles and snags where the trout hide and ambush prey brought down by the current of the river. Casting is limited to short flip cast, roll casts and even bow casts. Difficulty in fishing this area normally keeps the crowds away.

The angler coming to the Cimarron River should be aware of the foam line (or 'bubble line') on the water where insects usually get trapped and are pulled downstream. Wild trout know these foam lines are food producers in the river and will position their feeding lies to intercept insects floating in or on the current. Before casting blindly in this river, first observe the water for a few moments and see if any trout commit themselves as to their location. Many times a trout will reveal its location by a disturbance in the water as it feeds.

The earliest an angler can usually begin fishing the Cimarron is in May. But, occasionally the river can be fished as early as March, but expect cool weather and a possibility of snow. Water is released from Eagle's Nest Dam because of irrigation demands downstream. The Cimarron is a good summer river with stable water release at 45 to 50 cubic feet a second. These optimum flows on the Cimarron can be anticipated until October. When other New Mexican rivers start to heat up in the summer months causing lethargic trout, the Cimarron is the perfect place to cast to New Mexico Brown Trout. Fenwick's Danny Bañales and I were tossing dry flies to rising trout on a July Fourth morning that produced over fifty trout (all released) and a superb memory time won't diminish. In the winter months when water is stored up in Eagle Nest Lake, flows in the Cimarron slow to a trickle. The fishing becomes poor and unproductive in the dead of winter. However, if water flows from the dam were a little more, the Browns could find more areas to spawn and there could be a possibility of fishing through the winter. This winter water release would also further enhance the aquatic habitat quality of the Cimarron.


In a river this size, a four weight or five weight rod at or under eight feet works superbly. Longer rods may be more of a hindrance in the canyon section. Tippets can be 4x to 6x depending on the artificial fly and water conditions. Hip waders with felt soles can be used to wade the entire river with caution paid to the many deep pools located at old beaver dams, runs and river bends. The Cimarron is about 12 to 15 feet wide on the average and the flow are dependent on the water releases from Eagle's Nest Dam. Because of the rich variety of insects in the river the Cimarron is most effectively fished with artificial flies. Although in the Special Trout Waters section, artificial lures with a single barbless hook can be used to entice fish. The key method to fish and to get strikes on the Cimarron is to constantly work upstream. The predominate hatches here are Blue Wing Olives and March Browns (both mayflies), but the angler will be surprised to see other insect species existing the water, also. Numerous caddis, small stoneflies and midges sometimes are active right along with other various mayfly species. On a day when the Browns are sipping in adult insect floating on the surface, a dry fly on a fine tippet can produce remarkable fly fishing.

Artificial Flies

Dry fly imitations that best represent the natural insects are; Adams, #14-#20; Elk Hair Caddis, #14-#16 in grey, olive or tan; Humpies, #14-16 in red or olive; Stimulators, #10-#16 in olive, orange or tan; and Comparaduns, #14-#18 in Blue Wing Olive, tan, grey and Pale Morning Dun. Nymphs to imitate the aquatic insects include Bead Head Pheasant's Tail, olive Caddis Pupa, Gold Ribbed Hare's Ear, brassies and scuds all in sizes about #14 to #20. Tie the nymph pattern on a fine tippet with a #6 split shot about eight inches above the artificial fly and a strike indicator four feet above the artificial fly.

If you go...

To reach Cimarron River from Santa Fe, head north on Hwy 84, past the towns of Española, Embudo and Pilar. Arriving in Taos, turn right on Hwy 64. There is a gas station and a tourist information center at the intersection. Drive approximately 32 miles to Eagle Nest Lake. The Cimarron is about three miles from the town of Eagle Nest.

Highway 64 follows the entire length of the river. There are numerous pullouts to park vehicles along the river for day use visitors including a free day use parking area next to Tolby Campground.

The Cimarron is an excellent summer river, but can be fished as early as March to as late as November depending on water releases from Eagle's Nest Dam. The Special Trout Water begins at the end of Tobly Campground and continues for one mile and a fifth, see the New Mexico Game and Fish regulations booklet for exact information.

Camping is available at Tobly Campground, Maverick Campground and Ponderosa Campground for a fee ($10.00 overnight camping, some water, no facilities, pit toilets), information; (505) 577-6271. There is lodging, restaurants, stores and other facilities at the town of Eagle's Nest (Eagle's Nest Chamber of Commerce (800) 494-9117). Altitude is approximately 8,000 feet. Temperatures in the summer are around 80 degrees with the evenings becoming enjoyably cool. Expect frequent but brief summer storms during the afternoon. A valid New Mexico Fishing License is required by residents and non-residents over the age of 14.

This is a wildlife area and you can expect to see deer, elk and bear. Store your food in a safe place; trunk of car, enclosed container, etc. Do not place food stuff in your tent as a bear will come into your tent for your food. ~ Thomas Peña

About Thomas

Thomas Peña is a native New Mexican from Albuquerque. Thomas guides on the same rivers and streams that he fished since his youth. In addition to being a fly-fishing guide, he also conducts fly-fishing workshops at the University of New Mexico Getaway Services at Albuquerque and at UNM's Community Education in Los Alamos. Thomas Peña is a Fenwick Fieldstaffer, Berkeley Ambassador, Hunting Retriever Hunt Test Judge and a closet Chef among other frivolous endeavors. Thomas has fished in the southern Rockies, California, Baja California, Laguna Madre, Spain, England and Scotland. His other interests are travel, academia, hunting, Labrador Retrievers, photography, drinking beer and freelance writing with publications in Fly Fishing Quarterly, Dallas Morning News, Retriever Journal, New Mexico Wildlife (where this article previously appeared) and other local publications. When not in the outdoors, Thomas works in documentary projects. Thomas is married to Kathy with two children; Mariana and J.J. (Juan José) with a third child due in April. You can reach him at: penat@gte.net

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