Burn After Reading – San Juan River Navajo Quality Waters – A Swimming Pool With Fish

| September 22, 2008 | 5 Comments

New Mexico fly fishing at the San Juan River for trout

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The music may not exactly work, but it’s worth a listen anyway.

We headed for our destination, starting out late at night with the moon waxing, timing designed to pass through the rugged beauty of New Mexico in daylight. The panhandle, a place of infinite geographic monotony, has a visual value, but if you pass through it often enough, seeing it in darkness is identical to the light. Flatlanders can drive by braille.

For someone as young to the sport of fly fishing as myself, it’s an exciting experience to be in a place where virtually everyone’s world evolves around fish. Fish motifs on outside walls of businesses, fish motifs inside, signs with fish, fish sandwiches, fly fishing shops, guide services, all are part of the culture of the community of Navajo Lake.

The deep cut we fish in reveals thousands of years in strata, and one wonders what the river did before the dam, what the indigenous did for entertainment, how long it took them to lean to adjust their aim for the water’s refraction , with bow and arrow or spear, to pierce the side of a fish swimming among thousands of fish – not trout but the local natives that swam the river first. Imagine an experienced hunter showing his youthful progeny how he was taught … and who taught him … approaching the DNA level with no real beginning, but a pointed ending.

Mornings, should you choose to mingle, could start at the restaurant at Abe’s Fly Shop. The walls inside the restaurant are covered with wonderful, rough wood carved fish … of course. The guides congregate at a convenient and amazingly late hour for breakfast that will stick to your ribs, and coffee that is anything but Starbucks. Keep your expectations low when it comes to service, and you will not be disappointed. The wait staff has that transient feel of a Six Flags summer staff – here today, gone tomorrow, and each with their own story of how they found this crack in the earth filled with fish.

Knowledge is the master of success, and for knowledge you want to stop in at Abe’s and slide on down the counter to the fly bins. Or, for a very organized store and helpful staff, stop at Float ‘N Fish. There you will find someone helpful, knowledgeable and up-to-speed to narrow down the flies to what is currently working. Last week it was super tiny (Abe’s were barely small enough I later discovered) larvae. We are talking 18 to 22’s, and later success was based on a 26 in black and 22 in green. Get your spectacles on because this time, there was no way around tying on these little specks onto 6X and 7X tippet. The rigging was a double drop with twelve inches between, and split-shot about six inches above the top fly. Top it off with a strike indicator, and you have all the ingredients for a tangled mess. All measurements are negotiable based on depth of the area you are fishing.

With such small flies and thin tippet, it wasn’t long before I realized the folly of trying to “wrestle” fish in on my h,Winston Boron IImx. The rod was described, appropriately for this environment, as a “two-by-four” by guide Andy Kim. This kind of fishing is an extended negotiation, a give an take with lots of give and tentative taking in of line, always aware that too much pressure means a hook pulls free, bends straight or a tippet gives to the tension. I switched to my two weight after I realized what I needed to get dialed in to these waters. Not only do you have to dial down the rod, there’s a newfound reliance on the reel. Reels must be dialed down to virtually no drag … tighten the drag just enough to avoid backlash and no more. Go to the reel as soon as possible because a hand strip, palming the spool, or accidentally grasping the line when netting will almost always prove to be a release without the catch. In a best case scenario, you would want a buddy to net the bigger fish for you. The hook came free from virtually every fish once the fish was in the net, and tension was off the hook. There was almost no need to work any hook free from a fish at any time (and remember the wardens will test your hooks for barbs by sticking them in cloth and seeing if they pull free without a hanging snag – try it sometime).

Sometimes, I look up to the cliffs and think I am being watched, perhaps by the ghosts of braves patiently waiting for the white man to tire of the folly and leave their land. They knew the water, the land and air so much better than me and all the white men and a whacky Korean standing around me. The new wells are springing up all around the NQW, and when you go through towns, you can’t help but notice the casinos. Is there any doubt the vices of the white man are becoming the virtues of the red man? Forget electing an African American for president, and forget a female vice-president. Give us a Native American president, and then we can say North America has arrived.

With current always running, premium is on a good upstream cast, S curve mends properly placed close to the leader… drift … drift … taking slack on the pass-by and feeding on the downside drift while avoiding getting line caught in the current for a Speed Racer. Of course as the San Juan meanders, it spreads like so many varicose veins in my ankles. Those veins run slower than the River proper, and by default are much easier to fish.

Without time for deep research, my guess is that at some time Abe’s brought in or bought out a guide drift boat service called “Born ‘N Raised”, which in sheer numbers and convenience, dominates the guide scene at the Quality Waters. Simply due to the high profile of Abe’s, Born ‘N’ Raised is everywhere. And if you need a roof, and little more, again Abe’s is the place to hang your hat. They have these long strips of rooms, designed for one thing – sleeping between fishing sessions.

For LK and myself, it was the Cottonwood Campground across the river and up the other side. Basically, the campground is an oasis of green among a sea of rocks, dirt and dust. There was plenty of space during what is really the beginning of off season. Sites can be seen on google satellite and you will want to be closer to the river to get some priceless shade. The sun is hot. The air is dry, and immediate relief is only a shade tree away. Make no mistake, the campgrounds are top-notch and very easily navigated by today’s land whales.

The Navajo Quality Waters has a unique set of rules based on fish that are docile enough to come right up to the anglers and ask for a handout. Once you find a spot, in water that averages 18 to 36 inches deep, you stand and stop moving your feet. Why? The fish here are trained (Pavlovian style) to come when they hear rocks and gravel grinding under foot. Instead of fishing, I look down at my feet and see marvelous Rainbows threading through my silt (even swimming between my legs), gorging themselves on the microscopic meal stirred from the bottom and sent flowing downstream – a cloud of microscopic, stunted Ramen Noodles. So, one unique rule is: No fishing directly downstream from where you are standing, and two: no shuffling your feet to stir up micro clouds for yourself or your buddies. It just makes sense. I worked my way through the logic while questioning Guide Andy Kim; “Basically, if you shuffle your feet or are constantly moving, you take the fish out of the water column that is fishable, and bring them to you and your feet where they will stay”, as long as the micro cloud flows down to them. And they don’t leave until the cloud is gone – not fishable and not honestly catchable. Once they abandon the frenzy of foot feeding and return to their holding spots, they again settle into a routine of taking pupae as they come by – and Andy’s size 26 black thread on a hook, looks remarkably like those microbes. Success measured in trout where 15-inches is small and 20 is closer to the norm.

I hate to burst bubbles, but if one is looking for a (fisher)Man-Versus-Wild Fish experience, the NQW is a swimming pool with fish. Figure out what they are eating, and you will catch fish 85-percent of the time – or more. To up the challenge, one will begin to discriminate – sighting bigger fish, working tougher areas more rapid areas. There are also sizable Brown Trout that are less common and a huge weakness of mine – number one on my “Most Wanted Fish” freshwater list. These were all stocked at some time, and once they clue into an almost steroidal food chain, they get big and fat quickly. Combine that with a religiously enforced catch-and-release program, and you have a formula for the San Juan trout factory.

The catch-and-release policy is so front and center that our guide Andy Kim actually walked up to a guy who was packing up and leaving with a fish and asked to measure his fish. He couldn’t guilt the guy but blew steam later, “There’s no way that fish was twenty inches! I’ve seen that guy here before and he took a small fish then too. He lays the tape on them so it curves around their body! It was nineteen-and-a-half! He kept it anyway! No way.” I marveled at the spectacle later to fellow fisher RP, “Dude, there’s no way we would do that in Texas! Someone would get shot if we went around measuring other guy’s fish!” The NQW seemed much closer to the Wild West than any lake in North Texas. “Andy’s not well liked around here”, mainly because he does stick to the rules and keeps an eye on other guides and fishermen. Andy has been on these waters for fourteen years, and he reminds me of so many church ladies I’ve met; she forgets the church is not hers and will tap you on the shoulder as if it’s the hand of God reaching out to correct a misstep. Rules are rules, and that water needs someone like Andy.

If you go to the NQW, as with any location you may not have been to, do your research. There are weather factors, crowd factors in the summer, and if you want to get dialed in immediately – get a guide. This water is not so difficult, and if you gave it a rating between one and ten, I am thinking this would come in (this trip) at around a five. Information is king. Stop at the fly shops right away, and see what they know. Abe’s and Float ‘N Fish are well established repositories of supplies and knowledge.

The warm sun was setting on the rocks at the entrance of the Ghost Ranch as we passed by, headed for home, the full moon about to turn on the night light. There were enough clouds to give that Ansel look of shadows and light. Goodbye for now to the Land of Enchantment. I’ve passed by this place so many times, I’m afraid I am starting to take it for granted.

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Category: Adventure, Colorado Report, Fishing Reports, Fly Fishing for Trout, Fly Shops, Guides, Life Observed, New Mexico Report, Paid Reading Content

About the Author ()

I write. I photograph. I fish, and I live.

Comments (5)

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  1. Cindy says:

    haha. maybe if i wasn’t busy investing 700 dollars into my car right now. 🙁

  2. shannon says:

    Maybe I am? I just need funding for a three month “Fly Across America” road trip – Interested in investing? shannon

  3. richardplemons says:

    Only a 5?

    Well written Article….

  4. Cindy says:

    you should write a book. just saying.

  5. lane says:

    bravo. best one yet

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