December 1st, 2003

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Local Knowledge

By Harry J. Briscoe, Texas

Home Cooking - Acquired Instincts - The Home Court Advantage. Call it what you will, there's nothing like a little local knowledge (or the lack of it) to let you know that you're on someone else's territory. It takes three or four times around most championship golf courses to learn when to "go for it" and when to "lay up." Knowing the details of the haunts and habits of the local whitetails, the turkey gobblers, or even the quail coveys, can mean the difference between a good day of just having been there, or one chock full of extra special memories. Trout streams, especially those quality waters that see a lot of fishermen, hold their own sets of secrets. Learning them can be as much fun as knowing them.

When my friends Ken and Larry from Dallas invited me to join them for a mid-winter sneak-away to the legendary San Juan River in Northern New Mexico, I jumped at the chance to add another quality water to my modest but growing life's list. I'd heard stories of fish after fish in the 20"+ range - those were the stories that I remembered. Pushing a little further into the memory banks, I seemed to recall a few folks saying it was sometimes tougher than it looks - those are the reports I dismissed. I had no idea.

The day came, I left Houston early and during the 3 1/2 hour drive from Albuquerque to the metropolis of Navajo Dam, New Mexico, I was recounting other experiences on tailwaters and rehearsing techniques that had served me well before. Nymphs and strike indicators, I'd heard; dead drifts in channels and runs so thick with fish that even a first-timer should have a day to remember. No special skills needed, just good concentration and a little luck. Smaller flies in the wintertime, I suppose, but I'd done that before, too.

It was late afternoon when I arrived. Ken and Larry had not yet checked in, so I decided to drive the 3 or 4-mile stretch up to the dam, get my first look at this special place, and plan my strategy. The falling sun put the classic Western glow onto the cliffs of Cretaceous sandstone, and the bottomlands on both sides of the river waved shades of golds, browns, and purples through the tamaracks and field grasses. Mid-February, 50 degrees, scattered clouds - perfect, and hardly anyone in sight - I can handle this. I was already pleased that I had made the trip.

I rounded the curve to the first parking area and did a major double take. There must have been forty cars! A half-mile more and another lot - another 40 cars - and once more, again. "Whoa", I thought, "this is Thursday, and it's February. Man, the locals must really know something!"

I finally got my first glimpse of the river itself. There must have been 100 guys there. They were strung up and down the channel like they were waiting for a parade. It looked like Bennett Springs in Missouri on opening day. Surely this must be some huge corporate outing or a convention of some sort. This can't be normal. The short drive back to town brought thoughts of the strategies necessary for dealing with this much company.

Now, I have managed to arrange my life so that it includes a good bit of fly-fishing. I'm no pro, for sure, but I'm not a novice, either. Maybe 30, maybe 40 days a year on various waters, but never enough in one spot to really learn a place - and this river was a new one on me. I could already tell that it was going to be something I had not faced before. I needed advice. Frequently, the best place for a little insight is the local fly shop - if they'll tell you. With the crowd I'd seen, I figured someone had told somebody.

Abe's Motel. I've heard and read those words for years, usually with a degree of reverence attached to them - something like "Mecca" on the San Juan. Navajo Dam, New Mexico is pretty much somewhere you go to - it's not somewhere you go through when you're going somewhere else, and Abe's, Rizutto's, The Sportsman's Cafe, and the upscale Soaring Eagle are pretty much "It" when you get there. Abe's is a grocery store, fly shop, guide and motel office, gas station, cafe in the morning, dining room at night, and a bar when you need it to be. I entered the swinging doors and made my way back to the fly displays. I was greeted by a friendly and honest-looking, 20-something fellow with a hat that said "Born and Raised on the San Juan" on it. This, I took for a good sign.

"Okay", I said, "What's hot, I'm a novice here." As soon as I spoke them, I worried that those last three words might create an opportunity for Abe's to move some slow inventory. I looked up and noticed the "River Conditions and Good Bets" chalk board on the wall and decided that I could protect myself from the oversell.

"Well, the river's a little murky right now because of the turnover, so the fish are being a little picky," came the reply. I was faced with acting like I knew what turnover was. I tried to appear pleased that conditions were to be a challenge, and I began patting myself on the back for knowing enough to seek out the local knowledge before hitting the water.

The "Born and Raised" fellow directed my focus to about ten compartments in his impressive rack of options. "Got anything like these here?"

On occasions in the past I have dumped my fly boxes onto a white paper spread across the kitchen table so that I could re-sort them - part of my ongoing objective of becoming a more efficient fisherman. Once, in the midst of this exercise, I decided to count - big mistake. Since it has been a couple of years since I last inventoried, I now have to estimate the total. I believe that I now own somewhere between 1250 and 1500 trout flies. Of course, it would look foolish to carry them all, so I usually have only 500 or so with me at any one time. I guess that's why I never seem to have what I need. "No, nothing quite like that," I admitted.

I looked carefully at the ten targeted compartments. It looked as if someone had spilled fresh ground pepper into the tray. Some looked like those little brown and red seeds that you shake onto your pizza at Mr. Gatti's, and others resembled fly specs and roach leavings. "Mostly midges," I mused. The silence indicated that "Duuhhh" might have reflected my mentor's thoughts, or maybe he was just polite. I thought that I'd spent some time with small flies in the past, but when the sizes start with #20's, and go down from there, well, we're really talking micro!

Poking through the variety of proffered options, I discovered that each was indeed different. Some of the black ones were segmented, some were smooth. Some had little glass beads for heads, some had little wing coverts, some bits of flash and sparkle. The red ones varied as much, five or six different patterns, each in five sizes ranging from small to "you've got to be kidding?" A mild sense of panic crept over me. Without further direction, I was dead meat. But, fortunately, I'd been in this fix before. In an attempt to progress without sounding clueless, I said, "Why don't you just pick me out a dozen that you'd take if you were going out."

Born and Raised said, "Well, if I was going out I'd start with a #20 Red Annelid or a Princess on the lead and put a somewhat smaller trailer behind it ("somewhat smaller? - than a 20?"). I nodded my head in approval. While my box was being filled I glanced up at the tippet displays and spied the new fluorocarbon. I'd heard great things about the invisibility of this new stuff, and I figured it would be just the ticket. "How about a wheel of the new stuff?? I asked, "7x or 8x, I suppose?" My friend said, "I'm getting by with 5x right now with the turnover."

"Oh yeah, the turnover. Well, give me a reel of 6x then."

"You sure you want the fluorocarbon?"

"Absolutely, I hear it's great."

"OK", said Abe's guy, "It's $9.95 a reel"

I suppressed a cough.

"So, with the dozen flies, and the tax, that comes to $36.85. How are you fixed for Eggs and Chamois Worms?"

Born and Raised directed my attention to another rack of flies. It looked like Alaska in miniature. Rows and rows of egg patterns in about eight different colors and six sizes. It looked like the bead rack at a craft store. "I heard that the 22 pale orange or peach is working well, and if all else fails the Chamois Worm sometimes gets 'em started."

I began to feel that I might be getting the "Let's just see what this Texan will buy" treatment, so I tried to be polite but skeptical. The Chamois Worm looked like a skinny strip of my old work gloves tied fore and aft to a size 8 hook. It came in four colors, and at $1.85 each I decided I could pass. And, I just don't do eggs, period, ever. They don't look like bugs, and they don't look like little fish. "I'm ok in those departments," I lied.

I tucked the small package of acquired local knowledge, and my $10.00 tippet, into my pocket and walked out the door. I was mentally increasing my active inventory count to 512 as Ken and Larry pulled up in their rented car. We exchanged greetings, and I asked, "What kept you?"

"Oh, we stopped in Cuba on the way up. They've got a killer Mexican food restaurant there, so we had lunch."

I kicked myself mentally. Not two hours earlier I had passed by the same spot and I remembered thinking that it was probably a local secret. Local knowledge works on all levels. I recalled my bag of Ritz Bits and ice cream sandwich.

Ken asked if I had heard what was going on at the river. I responded confidently that we were in the midst of a full-blown turnover and that red and black pizza peppers seemed to be the hot ticket. I showed them my new purchases and they nodded knowingly. We got checked in to the motel room and decided that dinner was in order. Ken actually had been to Navajo Dam before, a couple of times, and he quickly recommended The Sportsman. "It's where most of the locals go." That sounded like an acquired taste, I thought. Life really can be a learning experience if you pay attention.

That evening, after a decent dinner of fried mushrooms, green chili soup, a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of Mer-Lot (as they called it), I went to sleep reading Ed Engle's Fishing the Tailwaters. Between that, my own experience and the latest additions to my fly inventory, and the fluorocarbon, I was certain that I was ready.

The morning broke clear, a crisp 27°, and fabulous. Boy, I love the West. I was up early. Ken had said that his information indicated there was not much need to be on the water before 10:00 a.m., so we hit Abe's breakfast cafe for a leisurely start to this day. "How's the oatmeal?" I asked. "You mean the trough?" came the reply from our bouncy-friendly waitress. Despite the inference, I ordered it anyway. In a few minutes approximately 2 pounds of sticky oats arrived in a large soup bowl. Local knowledge might have suggested a different choice - but then the locals don't really know how much I like oatmeal!

Ken reported that he had called Steven in Durango and that he was going to drive down and join us for the morning. This was excellent news since Steven has written one of the premier books on the San Juan. He is an expert; part of the knowledgeable in-crowd. He's fished this river season-in and season-out for over ten years. If there was someone to have on your team, Steven is definitely the man. As far as local knowledge was concerned, we were headed for the head of the class. I was inspired and finished most of the oatmeal.

We met Steven at the appointed hour at the appointed place and proceeded to the first parking area. The upper part of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam is on New Mexico State Park land. They have erected excellent facilities designed to handle the large numbers of fishermen who use this great area. We paid our $4.00 day-use fee, stuck the receipt inside the front window, rigged up and headed in single file down the well-worn path through the head-high tamaracks to one of the back channels off of the main river. As we walked in, we met a couple of guys coming out. Surprised, I asked if they were having any luck. "Yeah, we did pretty good. They got going really strong about 8:30,but it's tapered off a little now." I think Ken pretended not to hear.

We reached the streamside and sat down in the sun to plan strategy. "Let me see your fly box, Ken." It was Steven making the request, so it was obvious that paying attention here was a good idea. Ken opened an old Wheatley, the kind that has the turning pages of white felt. Everything appeared to me to be size 18 or smaller. There were rows and rows and rows of flies, all manners of ties, all shades and hues of color, 1 dozen per row, 18 rows per page, 6 pages in the book. My engineering background allowed a quick calculation. Ken had 1296 miniature nymphs right there in that one box, and his dries were somewhere else! Damn! I thought, I should have brought more.

"What do you think?" Ken's inquiry reflected the pride of the time he had spent tying these little jewels. "Obsessive comes to mind", said Steven, "but then obsessive is sometimes good." At that point Steven did not know that Ken had also made the cane rod he was using.

"What's your choice, Steve?" I asked, trying to maximize this lesson. Steven pulled out a rather small box with maybe a couple dozen occupants. "I think I'll put an attractor nymph of some sort up front and then use a dark midge for a trailer." An attractor nymph? My mind raced through the annals of flies I have known. A Humpy emerger? A nymphal form of Royal Wulff? Maybe a gold-ribbed Goofus Bug? What the heck is an attractor nymph? Come to think of it, though, the Princess's I had bought from Born and Raised did look a little like a tiny form of the Parmachenee Belle that my Dad used to like when I was a kid.

Steve continued, "I'm going to put a Chamois Worm or an Egg up front and trail that with a Crystal-headed Black Annelid." I felt the trough of oatmeal turn over in my stomach. Larry immediately produced a box of Eggs and Steven pawed through them cautiously. He suggested a size 22 Peach. I looked over his shoulder and realized that his were all Georgia Peach. With my luck, even if I had any they would have been Texas Hill Country Peach. Ken and Larry were actually worse off. They had some Eggs but none were smaller than an 18, and they were more like a South Carolina Peach. "Go ahead and give one a try," said Steve, trying hard not to sound too pessimistic.

The others dropped me off at the first run and took up successive positions along the way upstream. Steven pointed out for me as best he could the suspect lies. I assured him that I had experience at dead drifting nymphs, (which was true). He said that was good but this river was sometimes a little different than most. As he left I hollered out "What kind of tippet do you recommend?" "Probably 5x or 6x today", came the reply, "Regular's fine. That fluorocarbon is too damned expensive." The oatmeal turned again.

I surveyed my first run and tied on a size 20 Red Annelid and trailed that with a 24 Black Pepper. I added the suggested BB between the two and put on an unobtrusive little strike indicator at about 1 1/2 times the depth of the water as I estimated it; a plan that had worked many times before. My expectations were modest, but my enthusiasm was high as I stepped into the first run. After all, this was someone else's water, and I'm just learning the secrets.

For about 45 minutes I fished my heart out in all of the likely looking spots; seams, shelves, throats, cut banks, drop-offs; anywhere that the current provided any focus. I made great casts and great drifts, I concentrated, I switched flies, moved BB's and indicators, and I just knew that the 20" Rainbow was right there ready for the taking. I made a cast to one of those "not to hot but might as well try it anyway" spots and was rewarded with my first San Juan trout, a bright 15-incher. "Aahah, a start", I thought, and then spent another 15 minutes without further confirmation that I was learning anything. I began to think that the guys who started at 8:30 might have known something.

I knew that Steven had to leave early, so after about an hour I decided to walk up to see how the others were doing. It was then I realized that I had not seen other fishermen. Where were the crowds from the day before? I also began to pay attention to an incredible array of waterfowl and other wildlife on the river. I saw a muskrat and a beaver. Overhead was a Bald Eagle applying a different technique to the same challenge. There was going to be plenty of redeeming value to this trip, even if I didn't catch another fish. I was happy.

Larry, Ken, and Steven were all fishing near the head end of our side channel as it cut away from the main river. As I spied them I also found the crowd. Beyond my friends I could see at least 30 other fishermen working almost every available piece of the main channel, and at any one time, my field of vision contained at least three float boats making their way down the center of the river. Most everyone seemed to be fishing right at their feet or immediately over the side of the boat. As I got closer I could also see something else new to me. Everyone was using strike indicators that looked like tennis balls, or pom-poms off your kids' bedroom slippers. It looked as if a Christmas tree had lost its load of ornaments and they were all floating down the river in unison. Reds, oranges, whites, greens, and chartreuses - like so many giant dandelions on the current. What has life become?

I approached Larry first who, like me, was on his maiden trip to the San Juan. "No good, so far. How about you?" Ken was next and had gotten one fish about like mine. "How's Steven done?" I expected the worst. "He's got 7 that I know of and probably more cause I wasn't with him the whole time. Looks like 3 or 4 over 20 inches." Ken's report was succinct. I thought quietly for a moment and then decided that I would not have oatmeal tomorrow.

Steven was reeling up to start the walk back to the car for his drive home to appointments in Durango. He is, in fact, just a super nice fellow, and he smiled knowingly at our efforts. He sat down with us and shared a few things about the river he knows best. He explained that the San Juan is one of the most prolific fish factories in the country. Its waters are loaded with all forms of micro-biota and the fish have become accustomed to their natural smorgasbord. They're also used to not having to work too hard to access it.

The state has recently assigned a fisheries biologist to the river on pretty much a full-time basis, and Steven reports the nearly unbelievable number of 15,000 to 20,000 catchable fish per mile of water. The river is pretty broad throughout, and it carries a lot of water, but that is a lot of trout anywhere.

As a result of the number of fish, the richness of the food source, and the amount of fishing pressure, certain sophistication in just what the fish will eat has evolved. In addition, the fish tend to spread out across the river and are not concentrated to the degree one might expect in the "normal" currents, runs, chutes and seams. What often looks like a broad flat run is likely not as flat as it looks, and within, it hides any number of micro-channels where the fish lie.

Steven offered a little free lesson, "You've really got to focus and concentrate on the subtle details of the water and put your bug right in front of their noses. And you pretty much need to be right on bottom. If you're not hanging up, you need more weight. Usually the water is a lot clearer than now and you can see more of both the fish and the bottom structure. That makes it a lot easier. We've got the turnover to thank for the current conditions."

"Okay, okay," I finally succumbed, "What is this turnover business?" Steve explained that the area had seen an unusually mild winter and that the thermocline in Navajo Lake never could make up its mind. The cold surface layers of the lake waters periodically sink and change places with the warmer lower layers and the flip-flop creates some turbulence. Rather than seeing this happen once or twice during the season as is normal, it seemed to be almost a continual event, and that has kept the river murky. "Well Heck", I thought, "I could have figured that out, I just wasn't thinking about the lake."

Steven got up to go and wished us well. As he walked away we felt a bit of comfort in our brief education, but I, at least, knew that I did not have any #22 Georgia Peach Eggs. We re-entered the side channel to practice our newly learned secrets. I began to concentrate on the slower and broader runs and actually picked up a fish or two, but still no bruisers. I moved out to the main channel of the river and tried to concentrate on the methods of the assembled masses. By this time the river was pretty well populated with fishermen of all shapes and sizes. The plethora of pom-pom indicators was noticeable - obtrusive, actually.

A steady flotilla of drift boats provided distraction from the steely-eyed focus on the pom-poms. I noticed that most seemed to be fishing a very short line, maybe 15' or so, and the guys in the boats barely had any length beyond their leaders outside the rod tip. In fact, the drifters were simply hanging their offerings straight over the side of the boat and going where the current took them. (We used to fish for Crappie that way around the stumps in the Louisiana bayous). Hook-ups were frequent enough to be noticeable, but with from 50 to 75 folks in the field of vision at any one time, the apparent success level may have been misleading.

Returning to our side channel, I picked out an innocuous-looking flat run upstream from Larry. I waded out what seemed to be an appropriate distance from the shore and began a short-line flip and drift routine. Flip, drift - flip, drift - flip, drift. No hang-ups. I need more weight. Add two BB's. Flip, plop, drift - flip, plop, drift - flip, plop, drift. My thoughts wandered. Let's see, I'm standing here with my $600 fly rod, my $250 reel, my $500 worth of necessary stuff, and my 510 flies (lost two this morning) doing a 15-foot flip, plop, and drift routine. Fly casting at its best.

My mind was searching to rationalize this situation when my attention was ripped back to the present by a strong bump against my submerged calf. A trout, and a substantial one at that, had just crashed into my leg - and pretty hard. Within a minute I was again torpedoed by a San Juan assassin, and then within a minute, again. I was contemplating the cast that would be necessary to put my fly drag-free between my legs when I was hit yet again. Perhaps these fish were picking nymphs off my waders, or maybe they were so used to fishermen that they were trying to encourage me to initiate the dreaded "San Juan Shuffle" and move my feet to dislodge a few naturals. I decided against the between-the-legs drop cast.

Downstream Larry had just hooked a good fish and Ken had picked one off a few minutes earlier. I focused on them. Although they were almost exactly as far offshore as was I, they were standing in water about knee-deep. I, however, was about up to mid-thigh. The micro-channels!! I must have been standing in one! I immediately backed off about 6 feet, lengthened my cast to 21 feet and began again. Flip, plop, drift - flip, plop, drift...bang-the tiny indicator made a quick dip and I picked up, fast to a strong fish. "Yes!" I congratulated myself out loud, and then realized that my prize was hooked squarely in the tail. "Sure fooled him," I thought. I did my best to create the impression of an underwater release and waved smiling at Ken and Larry.

The afternoon continued the matter of a slow education. Like most rivers, this one was going to take a while to really figure out. By habit, the "fishiest" looking spots got my most intense concentration, but they yielded the least reward. The occasional strike, and the more occasional fish, came from spots I considered least likely. Acquired knowledge, indeed.

Throughout the day I was distracted by the surroundings. Being a geologist, I notice the rocks, and the Navajo canyon, while not as outwardly spectacular as some, nevertheless left me with a desire to return on foot and hike its walls seeking out relics and prizes of the primal seas that hid them eons ago. Great rocks all around.

I love ducks. All day long the sky was filled with wheeling and turning flocks of widgeons and goldeneyes, their whistling wings announcing their arrival before they were seen. Mallards in pairs, three pintails, and a small flock of teal jumped from channel to beaver pond and back again. I imagined that they, too, were seeking the local knowledge, in their case the juiciest grazing grounds. For them, the stakes were a bit more intense than they were for me. All up and down the river, each 200 yards or so, the banks were occupied by loud and territorial pairs of magnificent Canada Geese. Though wild, they, like the trout, had become accustomed to the steady presence of their human visitors and they casually dabbled in the same waters we fished, often within 15 or 20 feet. The senses were fully charged.

As the afternoon drew on, we agreed to make our separate ways back to the parking lot. I wandered my way back through the scrub intending to re-visit a couple of the earlier pools. I imagined that I might be more successful now. Picking through my fly box I spied an old friend from my college days. I picked out a #16 Brassie and recalled many dead-drift successes with it in the Cheesman Canyon of the South Platte. As I tied it on, a flock of hard-driving little ducks bombed towards me. Buffleheads, beautiful little divers, I recognized the drake in the lead - and there in the tail of the flock flew a true albino - a wild, white marvel. The obviousness of his presence made it appears as though he was working harder to keep up. I had never seen a wild albino, and, almost as an apparent courtesy to me, they circled so I could get a second look - and then went on down the river. This, I decided, was to be my reward for the day of learning. The trout could come tomorrow, or on the next trip; today, I was fulfilled.

The way back to the car involved a short wade across a shallow riffle that plunged into a long deep hole. Across a section of the riffle a beaver had begun an ambitious project that, if completed, would create a significant tailwater in its own right. The partly ponded area provided a reflecting pool for the tamaracks and the sandstone cliffs. The sun was perfectly behind me. Halfway across the riffle, I paused and looked upstream. There was no visible trace of the hundred or so neighbors that lay around the bend and I fumbled in my vest pocket for my camera. I tucked my rod under my arm so that I could use both hands and then accidentally dropped the rod into the water at my feet.

Looking quickly down I could see that I was in no immediate danger of losing my prized Classic, the water was only about 6 inches deep, so I braced the rod against the current between my feet and proceeded with the photo and the gaze. The Brassie trailed downstream. I shot several frames with my slide film and then decided to shoot some prints as well. Taking care, I stowed the cameras so that they might avoid the fate of the rod.

After one last look at the scene, I picked up the rod and began to reel up the slack. The rainbow that had taken the dragging Brassie had been waiting for most of a minute for me to get to him. After I got back to a tight line he obliged with a worthwhile run, an acrobatic battle and then beached himself in the shallows by the beaver dam. Right at 20 inches. I took another picture and clipped my Brassie for a souvenir.

At the head of the trail Ken and Larry were waiting. "What the heck were you doing down there? We were watching from the trail. Were you hung up or something?"

"Just working on a little local knowledge," I replied - proudly. Indeed. ~ Harry Briscoe


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