June 14th, 2004

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The Trout and People (lots of trout, lots of people) of the San Juan River
By Jorge J. Santiago-Aviles

If you have seen one of those sailing dinghy races, you would know what I mean. Suddenly you are immersed on chaos, you see boats everywhere, skippers yelling orders, everyone jockeying for a favorable position in the starting line...well, that is pretty much the scene in the Texas hole at eight in the morning. Boats everywhere, the guides trying to place their drift-boat along the right seam in the current, rowing up-current to repeat the desired drift, using their x-ray vision to place the right microscopic nymph at the right place in the equally microscopic leader, tied by a microscopic knot. I am sure you get the drift (no pun intended!). The San Juan River is a wonder to behold; the quality waters are loaded with no less than 15,000 trout's per mile, mostly rainbows, but with a good number of browns, and here is where the story begins.

The Texas hole at 8 AM. Every single guide attempting to place his or her drift-boat along the predominant current seam.

In general, I approach fishing the San Juan the following way. If I have some business in Albuquerque or Denver, I know what needs to be done. I will try to get a rental car and send some e-mail to Abbe's Flyshop in Navajo Dam to get a room in the motel. Then, I will reserve a couple of day floats and most of the pertinent homework has been done.

The start of the quality waters in the San Juan River as seen from the top of Navajo Dam.

There I go in my peregrination to the trout fisherman Mecca. And a peregrination it is. I have been doing this for the last twenty years, every four or five years according to the opportunities brought by my job. Through the years, the San Juan River, and principally the village of Navajo Dam, have changed a great deal as compared to the early 80's. Even Abbe's Motel looks the size of a small town, such as that one encounter in that neck of the woods. Abbe himself does not age much, or at least is not as notable, although now he has retired.

So here we are, a stormy late April morning after a seven-hour drive from Denver (four hours from Albuquerque, NM) and after a pleasant nights rest at Abbe's. I love Abbe's gas fired heaters; they warm the room so fast, and put you to sleep with a low, continuous, noise reducing sound. I already had my breakfast at Abbe's restaurant by the fly-shop. An overdose of French toasts that I am sure will be enough fuel to power a full day float through the quality waters. When I saw the river this time, I was very impressed by how low it was. The Texas hole that usually looks like a good size pond, looked like one of those ponds people put Koi carp for ornament in large gardens. My guide this time was Johnny Lopes, a veteran of almost two decades guiding in the San Juan, and a bit of a philosopher. Johnny will not shy away from any discourse, from politics, through history and ethnography to conservation. That Friday he was into the influence of the Spanish culture in the southwest.

The side of Abe's flyshop and motel. Mighty large rainbows there, sometimes you have to hug the trout to land it!

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. But Johnny's forte is his amazing ability to control the drift-boat, keeping you at the right distance and direction to the intended target, being it a trout, or a seam in the river current. Johnny saw the clouds converging to a point in the northwestern horizon, and asked me if I had brought the pants of my raingear. I told him no, and he said that I was going to get wet. Well I did not; it was hail that fell on us for about 15 minutes. To compensate for that, fishing was great all day long. There was a prolific hatch of midges and small mayflies. The midge was about a size 24 and the dark brown mayfly about a size 20. The bugs were everywhere, but strangely, there were no trout working the surface. Instead of the trout, there were thousands of swallows working the hatch. The most beautiful birds, about the size of your hand and with brown, white and purple in their backs. They were working the hatch pretty much the same way the guides where. They will bunch-up at the head of the pool (the Texas hole) and fly close to the water picking-up bugs to the end of the current seam. At this point they will start flying high, turn over their shoulders and return to the head of the pool. I wonder who learned from whom, the guides from the swallows or vice-versa.

The swallows having a party of the heavy mayfly hatch during the stormy weather.

The way you fish the San Juan River is by doing the San Juan drift. That is, nymphing with indicators and really tiny hooks. Of course there is consistent surface action, but the majority of the trout are taken with nymphs. You know that in order to get the nymphs to where the trout is feeding, lead or tungsten beads are attached to the leader. The problem is, of course, that casting an 8 foot leader with a two foot tippet, two nymphs, and two lead beads, is not trivial. It requires seriously wide open loops. Unfortunately, thousand of flying swallows and tiny nymphs dropping from the sky, might lead to some unfortunate interactions between number six tippets and birds wing-feathers. The tangles were predictable, even when the birds were extremely fast and maneuverable, most of the times avoiding the fishing lines. I caught four of those little rascals. I like to remind you that retrieving line from the sky does not qualify as fly-fishing, unless you are playing a flying fish. None of the birds were harmed in any way though, they were untangled and immediately released, flying away to join the marauding platoon picking-up bugs from the river surface.

That day we fished two nymphs both on 24 hooks, a princess and a CDC split-tail as a trailer one-foot under. We used two of the smallest lead reusable beads. All on a number 6 tippet. We experimented with the length of the leader-tippet under the strike indicator, and the best length was about 8 feet. Note, that the best strike indicators for the San Juan are just a small piece of polypropylene, such as those you can purchase on hobby or crafts shops for macramé.

A nice rainbow, mind you, this is a boat net, the opening is about 24 inches.

Following the swallows we went, the first strike happened during the first drift down the current seam. With a number six tippet you do not want to horse your fish, remember that in the San Juan, the average rainbow is 18 inches long. The problem is that you do not want to play the fish too long either, in order to avoid lactic acid build-up in their muscles and unduly stressing the fish. So you must use your best form and skills in combining these two incompatible demands.

The wind was very high all day long, producing some challenging casting conditions and lots of tangles. In one occasion during a particularly poor cast, the tippet hit my hat-covered head, went through the hat material and landed hooking my bald-spot. I could not dislodge that small hook because it was so difficult to hold between my thumb and index finger. I finally managed it, with no blood and no pain (just a little).

When the river is so low, it does not fish well. Johnny Lopes told me that it made no sense to continue downstream, as we were not going to do any better, and that we should remain in the Texas hole all day. So we continued with the Texas hole dance all morning, connecting to large rainbows in almost every drift along the current seam. Note that I say connecting; what happens is that with such small hooks, losing 1/5 of your hooked fish is not unheard off. We did lose our share, but it was not too bad.

Ahh, the joy of catching large trout with small nymphs! Never try to horse them into your net before they are ready, not much of the trout mouth is held by a nymph on a no. 24 hook.

At noon we stopped for a shore lunch (the usual ham sandwich or fried chicken) at one of the pretty spots overlooking the imposing yellow mesas of the four-corner region. Fishing during the afternoon was pretty much the same, except that I hooked a large trout that took me almost to the backing. I hate when that happens as I usually loose the fish. Not this time my friends, I patiently worked back the fish with a slow and soft pumping of the rod, and landed the fellow.

All along the day, I was most curious of a father and son team in another drift boat. The young boy was about the same age as my son (8 years) and the kid was always hooked up. He was doing so well. I must confess that I really missed my kid that day. At the putout everyone was happy and as true fisherman, concocting all kind of stories of the large ones that they landed. The casual conversation surrounding the landing of trout over 25 inches (very unusual) was overheard coming from at least two boats. It so funny how easily grown man can distort the truth, just a little bit, just enough as to match our ego.

The take-out point, and end of the quality waters. What a pity that the quality waters are not extended to the bridge by the village of Navajo Dam.

The next day (Saturday) was a different story. The day was bright and sunny, not much in terms of wind, and of course not much in terms of fishing either. My guide that day was Brian Capsay. He has a fly-fishing business in Durango, not far from the San Juan, at the other side of the Colorado border. Brian, as Johnny, is a smart, knowledgeable and hard working young man. What he lacks in experience, he more than compensates for in enthusiasm. The first four hours in the Texas hole yielded two trout hooked and one landed, and that was pretty close to lunchtime. After the mandatory fried chicken, we took off down river with the expectation of more action. I remember Johnny's comments the previous day and was a bit apprehensive, but the Texas hole was not yielding much action either, so there we went. When we reached dead man row, we saw a couple of trout working the surface, although there was no visible hatch, at least to my eyes. My vision is not what it used to be and I needed to place a large attractor (size 14 or so) about a foot from the midge I was fishing in order to see the vicinity of the fly (fishing "the zone"), and where my fly is drifting. We had no action, and after chasing the trout for about half an hour, we gave-up and continued down-river. The same thing happened in the so-called lower flats, some sporadic surface action of no consequence. This time the atmosphere at the putout was a bit more somber than that of yesterday. Apparently the trout in this river are sensitive to low/high atmospheric pressure variations as in lakes. Well, I did not get skunked (although it was a close call!); besides I had a great float in terms of company, conversation, and the ever-present flora and fauna of the San Juan. If you are a nature lover such as I, you will be delighted with the sights of mule deer, elk, and muskrats, brush jays, red tailed hawks, hares, bull snakes and a whole bunch of other interesting animals.

The author with a typical (no kidding, it is the typical size) rainbow from the San Juan River quality waters. This photo was taken in the mid 80s, when the river was full. At that time you were allowed to handle the fish. Now a days, with the severe fishing pressure, the guides shy away from this practice.

If you feel the urge to fish a tail-water, pick the San Juan River, one of the best rainbow fisheries in the US. Call the very affordable Abbe's flyshop and motel (www.sanjuanriver.com, 505-632-2194, see if Johnny Lopes can guide you). If you are spending some time in the region, or you are travelling with your family, visit Durango, Colorado. It is a wonderful town with something to offer everyone. If you have your fishing rods ready, and would like to try the Animas River, go and visit Brian's flyshop (brian@caddiscompany.com, 970-946-6494) and have a float down the Animas. ~ Jorge

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