Hell Or High Water

Fly-Fishing On The San Juan

Lee Ross
12 min read
People come from all over the world to fish the San Juan River. Some of them die in the process. (Lee Ross)
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Miwako Kato laughed nervously as she began to lose her struggle against the current of the San Juan River. At 5’3”, 100 pounds, armpits deep in the icy, fast-moving river, Miwako would soon be in real trouble.

Water began spilling over the top of her borrowed, size extra-large waders, waterproof neoprene pants that come up to a person’s chest. Miwako laughed again as the waders quickly filled with water, weighing her down. Strapped to what amounted to a big water-sack, if Miwako lost her footing now, swimming to shore would be nearly impossible.

In June of last year, around the same time, a 50-year-old fisherman disappeared, probably swept into the river and drowned. Police found his red pickup with his shoes and cell phone inside. They suspect he slipped while fishing, his waders filled and he was unable to escape the 40-degree water of the San Juan.

I guess I had something to do with Miwako’s situation. The friends who were on this trip, Miwako and Matthew Lane, are the ones I regularly go rock climbing with, not fly fishing. In my ignorance, I’d helped Miwako into my extra-large waders and told her she would be fine, even though the river was running high. Now I was out of the river, unable to help.

Fortunately, Matthew was ahead of Miwako, also in waders. He had his back turned as he made easy, long-legged strides towards the bank. Another nervous laugh escaped Miwako as she continued to be sucked into the fastest part of the river. Matthew finally saw her and rushed to help.

As Matthew bent to grab her by the arm, he dropped his fly rod and the river carried it away. He managed to stop her from moving any further into the current, but the force of the water had them in a kind of stasis. He was unable to pull her to him. On top of that, in this position, Matthew’s waders also began filling with water.

Finally, Matthew dug his heels into the silt riverbed and leaned back, freeing them both from the current. When Miwako eventually got back to shore, her large waders sloshing, full of water, she looked like she was standing in the lower half of the Michelin Tire Man. She shrugged out of the suspenders and unleashed a waterfall, still laughing.

“Let’s do something safer, like rock climbing,” Matthew said. Miwako nodded, gave her sun hat a self-conscious tug and smiled. She is as fearless a mountaineer as she is a fly-fisher.

World-Class Water

Located in northwestern New Mexico, near Farmington, the San Juan River at Navajo Dam has been called the best fly-fishing spot in North America. Record-sized brown and rainbow trout are pulled from its waters every year as well as good-sized carp, small-mouth bass and northern pike.

The waters of the river are released from Navajo Reservoir and Dam. Completed in 1962, the dam holds back the waters of the 35-mile-long reservoir and lake. The water for the river is released from the bottom of the lake, which means the river maintains a temperature of about 42 degrees all year.

That makes it a perfect breeding ground for all manner of tiny bugs, so the trout are feeding all the time. They grow into monsters and crowd in; there are at least 70,000 trout in the first four miles below the dam, and they average 17 inches long. The river attracts people from all over the world, even as far away as Japan. Anglers get wet just thinking about the frigid waters of the San Juan.

Part of the maintenance of the river is periodic high flows, like the one Miwako was almost swept up in. The high water runs as fast as 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), starting around the end of March, and tapers off to around 350 cfs by mid-June.

Regulated by the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the seasonal release is an approximation of natural high flow rates that would normally happen when the summer snow-pack melts. As mandated by the Endangered Species Act, the high flows are an effort to save two endangered fish: the razorback sucker and Colorado pike minnow. Seasonal flows help native fish to spawn.

Jude Duran, who runs a guide service and sells hand-tied flies, says the flows are also important because the valley evolved with those cycles. Duran believes seasonal flows help make the river healthier. One example he gave is flushing sediment to clean out the trout habitat.

“A river’s job, regardless of whether it is dammed or not, is to transport things. It can’t transport sediment when that dam is there and the flow is consistent,” says Duran, who has sold his handmade flies to San Juan fishermen for nine years and operated his guiding service for four. 

Duran takes his job seriously; it’s his passion. “Tying flies makes you intimate with nature, it makes you more of a conservationist,” he says. “And because I am a guide, I really depend on the health of the river, the health of the fish, the health of the insects, for my livelihood. I want to do everything I can to preserve that.”

He draws a line between himself and activists that take conservation to an extreme, and sometimes even silly, level. The Moab, Utah-based environmental group Living Rivers has appeared at public meetings about water issues relating to the San Juan River with big, plastic Colorado pike minnows and razorback sucker hats on their heads. Their goal is complete restoration of the natural habitat for native fish by the removal of both the Navajo and Glen Canyon dams entirely.

“I’m not as liberal as that, but I’m a New Mexico kind of conservationist,” says Duran, who believes that water management can be done well, and that it is possible to have outdoor recreation and a healthy environment.

The Art of the Fly

To get the patterns for his flies, Duran goes to the source, the San Juan. He wades into the water, stoops over with the kind of fish net used in an aquarium and churns up bugs by shuffling his feet along the riverbed. It’s a method that is sometimes called the San Juan Stomp and is illegal when an angler shuffles then casts her line downstream into the “chummed” water. Duran preserves the sampling of tiny midges, scuds and leaches in alcohol. He then uses them to pattern his flies. There is even a pattern originating in the area that is used throughout the West, the San Juan worm.

“When you start tying flies it adds to your complete knowledge of the stream,” he says. He began tying flies after receiving a kit for Christmas in 1997. “It actually collected dust in my closet for about six months before I sat down and tried to teach myself how to tie flies,” Duran says. These days he ties about 5,000 flies a year.

“Fly fishing makes things just a little more even between you and the fish,” says Duran.

San Juan actually has a club of fly-fishers called 20/20, people who’ve caught a 20-inch trout on a size 20 hook. To get a feel for how small a size 20 hook is, make an outline of your pinky toenail. While it might be easier to cast a net over a fishing hole and rake in a few fish, clearly, part of the appeal of fly fishing is in the chase.

A Woman’s Touch

With last year’s drowning during high flows, many guiding services have turned people away rather than rent them waders or guide them.

“At 15 minutes, in 41- or 42- degree water you’ll get hypothermia, even if you don’t panic and try to keep your head out of the water,” says Duran. He says since he has a float service, which is safer than trying to wade during those times, his business wasn’t affected. And he knows how and where to fish during high flows.

I didn’t have a guide service or even a clue as to what type of flies to use, which is one of the reasons I didn’t catch a single fish. The other reason is that the fly-fishing cast is an art of skill and grace. It doesn’t lend itself well to my method, which is more of a whip-cracking technique.

I practiced my cast for a good part of the weekend and sent tiny, but expensive, fly hooks sailing in every direction as I cranked on the delicate fly-rod. Each snap sent another fly in flight, usually in front of or behind me, but they also, surprisingly, went sideways too. I finally settled on sending out my line, hookless, with only the most meager hope of having it land in the water, rather than coming down on my head in an intricately woven rats-nest. With my horrific cast I was just as likely to lasso a fish as land one using a hook.

But I’m not alone in being a male, graceless fly fisher. Tim Chavez, owner of Born ’n’ Raised, a guide service near Navajo Dam, says he’s seen quite a few fishermen’s egos take a hit. "A lot of times men will try and force the cast, but fly casting is kind of a graceful thing," Chavez says. "Women seem to have the right touch."

Even though people from all over the world come the San Juan River to learn to fly fish, Chavez has noticed a pattern. "The men tell us, ‘Spend some time with my wife; she needs a lot of help,’" he says. "The wife catches on, and pretty soon she’s pulling in more fish than her husband."

I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Prior to giving up on the hooks, I had somehow cast my line down the front of the shirt I was wearing. It is unclear how that happened. I was trying to thread it back out again without hooking my nipple when a mother of three and her husband passed by.

“She out-fished us all,” the husband said, referring to his wife, who was carrying an enormous fish. “It ain’t right,” he told me.

I only shrugged, then flinched as the cold barb brushed my areola.

Handling Your Fish

Before heading out to the San Juan River, it is important to understand the kind of human impact the river receives. It is a type of stream called “tailwaters,” rivers with unnatural conditions that are optimal for fish to live. Most of the fly-fishing in the country is done on these types of waterways. Eighty percent of all fly-fishing is done on 20 percent of fishable water, mostly tailwater.

It is also important to note that landing a fish is a matter for a more delicate sensibility as well. The first four miles of the San Juan are quality waters. The rules are that you can only keep a fish over 20 inches, and you can only keep one of those per day. Since that means most of the fish will be released, anglers can only fish with a single, barbless hook.

This is because of the use the area gets as a world-class fishing destination. In some of the most popular holes, it is estimated that a single fish is caught about once every week. Also, for the well-being of the fish, it is best to keep the fight to a minimum, and use a net instead of touching the fish. If you have to handle a fish, make sure your hands are damp first. That helps the fish maintain its protective coating of slime.

If You Go

Take sun protection: a wide-brimmed hat, polarized sunglasses (which also help you see the fish through the glare of the water) and sunscreen. To apply sunscreen, put your hand in a sandwich bag, squirt the sunscreen on the bag and apply. That way you won’t have sunscreen on your hand, and won’t accidentally slather it on a fish.

Remember to take care as well: Wading is sometimes not a good option. If you do plan to wade, bring wool socks to keep your toes warm.

Finally, it might be a good idea to take a guide. Make it easy on yourself. Guides can tell you how to make the slight adjustments to your cast, so you can land carp not crap. They also know which lures fish are hitting on and which holes will work in high or low waters.

Supplies, Restaurants And Accommodations

Jude Duran teaches fly tying, sells his flies and does guided trips. Call 280-3533, visit www.customflies.com or e-mail customflies@msn.com.  

Abe’s Motel and Fly Shop has been a fixture since 1958, before the dam was built. It is a lodge, outfitter, grocery store and restaurant, and has RV hookups. They even run a guide service called Born ’n’ Raised on the San Juan. Heading east on Hwy. 173, Abe’s is on the right, just past the bridge that crosses the San Juan. (505) 632-2194, www.sanjuanriver.com.

Camping is available at Cottonwood Campground. Heading east on Hwy. 173, take a right onto a dirt road just before crossing the bridge over the San Juan. The campground is located on the north side of the river. There are 20 campsites, a bathroom, water and telephones. The site accommodates tents, campers and RVs. For more info, call 632-1770.
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